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No welcome for refugees as Italy turns boat away

The North African refugee crisis dramatically worsened yesterday as a boat-load of Tunisian migrants sank in rough seas killing 35 on board, while a ferry carrying 1,800 people fleeing unrest in Libya was turned away by authorities in Malta and Italy.

The larger vessel had come from Tripoli and was carrying mostly Moroccan refugees. It was first turned away from Malta, and then from Augusta in eastern Sicily. It remained in international waters yesterday, tracked by an Italian naval vessel amid reports that the migrants were trying to get to Morocco.

"We can't know if there are terrorists aboard," the Corriere della Sera newspaper quoted the interior minister, Roberto Maroni, as saying. Later reports suggested that it had only sought to refuel, and a spokesman for the opposition Democratic Party called the interior ministry's decision "incomprehensible".

Tens of thousands of people have fled protests and crackdowns as the pro-democracy movement sweeps North Africa and the Middle East. Human rights groups have urged authorities to process the refugees fairly, but tensions have surfaced, notably in the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, where about 10,000 refugees have arrived.

The tragedy aboard a boat from Tunisia became apparent when another vessel reached Lampedusa and the refugees told authorities that they saw a small boat carrying about 40 people capsize in the early hours of yesterday morning. They said they were only able to rescue five of the migrants, with about 35 of its occupants drowning. One refugee said: "They're dead. They're dead. They sunk before our eyes swallowed up by the rough sea."

Despite the tragic capsizing and the exclusion of the ferry from the port in eastern Sicily, North African immigrants continued to pour into the tiny Italian island yesterday, with over 1,600 arriving on 21 boats in less than 24 hours. Lampedusa port authorities said that there had been "several rescue operations". An Italian warship, the Spica, rescued 129 migrants from a boat that was stranded in rough weather in an operation lasting three hours.

The island's immigrant centre has been overwhelmed. It now has 2,800 refugees in a facility designed for 800. One official said yesterday: "The problem is simple but very serious. We simply don't know where to send these people." Italian authorities have already ferried some arrivals off to Sicily and flown some to the mainland. But the refugees appear to be arriving so quickly and in such numbers, that Italy is unable to cope. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva said more than 10,000 Tunisians had arrived in Lampedusa since the ousting of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on 14 January.

"From our interactions with Tunisians arriving in Italy over past weeks, we believe that most are seeking employment and better economic opportunities," the UNHCR said yesterday. The Italian government is hoping that EU heads of state will approve a draft plan that will see the cost of the influx of illegal immigrants and refugees shared between member states.

Yesterday's developments came just a day after French far-right leader Marine Le Pen visited Lampedusa and warned that Europe could no longer afford to host migrants, who pay up to €1,500 each for the dangerous voyage from North Africa. She said immigrant boats should be sent back before they enter European territorial waters.