April 5, 2011 / 8:18 PM / 9 years ago

Italy, Tunisia sign deal to ease migrant crisis

* Marathon talks end with technical deal

* Forced repatriation possible but few details given

By Marie-Louise Gumuchian

TUNIS, April 5 (Reuters) - Italy and Tunisia signed an accord on Tuesday to stem a wave of illegal migrants arriving in Italy from North Africa.

The immigration crisis, set off when the ouster of former Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January removed previously strict border controls, has proved a political headache for Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right government.

Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said the agreement included increasing police cooperation and compulsory repatriations, but he gave few details before a meeting with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on Wednesday.

“We have signed the minutes on a technical agreement on cooperation between our two countries against clandestine immigration,” he told reporters in Tunis.

“Our intention is to turn off the tap,” he said.

He said the agreement aimed to step up border controls to block off the flow of migrants before they left Tunisia but also included “repatriation of citizens from both our countries with an irregular status”.

“This has been a long task which has not been easy,” he said after marathon talks with local officials. “A phase of cooperation between the two sides is beginning which we will have to keep up with.”

Some 20,000 illegal North African migrants, almost all young men from Tunisia hoping to find work in Europe, have arrived in the southern Italian island of Lampedusa this year, overwhelming the infrastructure of the tiny port, which normally lives off fishing and tourism.

After weeks of relative inaction, Berlusconi visited Lampedusa last week and pledged to clear around 6,000 migrants off the island and into holding centres elsewhere in Italy within days.

However, even as the operation on specially commissioned ferries was underway, more boats carrying hundreds of migrants have arrived in Lampedusa in the past few days.

Hundreds of migrants have also arrived from Libya and Italian officials have been deeply concerned that the fighting could trigger a much bigger wave of refugees in future.

Maroni, from the anti-immigrant Northern League party, has been under heavy pressure to reach an accord with Tunis from regional governments in northern Italy who do not want migrant camps set up in their regions.

Italy has pledged more than 200 million euros in aid and credit lines to Tunisia to help block the departures and create jobs which could dissuade potential migrants.

There has also been increasing tension with France, the destination of choice for most of the Tunisian migrants, which has closed off its frontier. (Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Susan Fenton)

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