The Italian government will give Tunisia €100m (£84m) to help to stem the tide of migrants fleeing political turmoil in the North African nation and arriving on the tiny Mediterranean island of Lampedusa.
Thousands of Tunisians have tried to reach European shores in the aftermath of huge protests that toppled President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali last month. The government is moving to stabilise Tunisia ahead of promised elections, but sporadic unrest continues and authorities yesterday extended a state of emergency.
Tunisia's state news agency announced the agreement that will see Italy provide Tunisia with the money and "a network of radars and fast boats". The EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, Cecilia Malmstrom, ordered the group's border agency, Frontex, to send a task force of up to 50 personnel, vessels and a couple of aircraft to provide further assistance.
Lampedusa, which is south of Sicily and has a population of 6,000, has been unable to cope with waves of immigrants, who pay up to €1,500 to be carried across the Mediterranean. Roberto Maroni, the Interior Minister and a member of the anti- immigration Northern League party, has described the arrival of more than 5,000 Tunisians in the past four weeks as a "biblical exodus". The Defence Minister, Ignazio La Russa, has approved the use of 200 soldiers to help to push back refugees.
Yesterday, there appeared to be rising anger in Lampedusa. The island's mayor, Bernardino De Rubeis, temporarily banned the sale of alcohol in bars or supermarkets. La Stampa quoted the chief Carabinieri officer on the island as saying "it would only take one half-drunk person and we'd risk civil war". The immigration detention centre is already full three times over.
Nicola Duckworth, Amnesty International's Europe programme director, called on the Italian government to respect the arrivals' right of access to "fair, satisfactory asylum procedures and for them to be informed of their rights".