March 28, 2011 / 6:32 PM / 9 years ago

Italy plans to ship North Africans from crisis island

ROME, March 28 (Reuters) - The Italian government made plans on Monday to move thousands of illegal Tunisian migrants off the island of Lampedusa to other parts of Italy after furious residents blocked the port to protest the months-long crisis.

Lampedusa, 200 km (124 miles) to the south of Sicily and 150 km from Tunisia, has been inundated since the start of the year by sometimes hourly arrivals of cramped, leaking fishing boat bringing hundreds of new arrivals every day.

The centre-right government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has offered 200 million euros ($281 million) in aid and credit lines to Tunisia to help tighten border controls.

On Monday, the Interior Ministry also announced plans to send six large navy transport vessels on Wednesday to clear all the migrants from the island to other regions in Italy.

Lampedusa’s normal population of around 5,000 has been more than doubled by thousands of North Africans, almost all young men in search of work in Europe, who have been stuck in makeshift encampments while waiting to be moved to the mainland.

Almost 19,000 have arrived since January and 3,720 came in over the past three days, according to local officials, bringing the islanders’ simmering anger at government inaction to the boil and prompting the protest on Monday.

“Fishermen and residents of the island are blocking the port with a number of boats which they took over after the migrants were disembarked,” a police official said by telephone from Lampedusa.

In normal times, a quiet island that lives from fishing and tourism, Lampedusa has become the centre of an immigration crisis triggered by the overthrow of former Tunisian President Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali in January.

The change of regime loosened the previously tight frontier controls that stemmed previous migration crises and an estimated 19,000 people have joined the exodus of small boats since the beginning of the year. (Reporting by Rome bureau)

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