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Tunisian army patrols ports to stop migrant exodus

Italy aching under Tunisian migrant wave
Rome (UPI) Feb 14, 2011 - Italy is aching under the influx of thousands of migrants from Tunisia. The boats were lining up to land in Lampedusa over the past few days. Around 4,600 people from Tunisia, mostly young men, have completed the journey to the tiny Italian island since Friday, with 600 arriving Sunday, the BBC reports. The Italian government has declared a state of humanitarian emergency and reopened a former migrant holding center on Lampedusa but the camp is overflowing. Italy says it wants more help from the European Union and Tunisia to stem the crisis. The BBC reports that Tunisia has denied a request by Rome to allow Italian police to be deployed to the North African country, where last month's uprising forced long-time President, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, to quit.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini was to arrive in Tunisia this week for talks with authorities. In a telephone conversation with Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign policy chief, Frattini called for the EU border agency Frontex to help control the influx of migrants, Italy's La Repubblica newspaper reports. Frontex has previously patrolled the Mediterranean waters to stop illegal migrants from reaching Spain and Italy. The border agency is "following the situation in Italy very closely and two staff members have gone to Italy over the weekend," a Frontex spokeswoman told the BBC. "We've run many joint operations in Italy in the past. The procedure depends on what type of request we have." A Frontex mission, however, would take weeks until it's up and running.

And even if the influx of more migrants can be stopped, there remains the question what to do with those who are already in Italy. Authorities fear that former prison inmates who fled during the unrest in the country are among real refugees looking for asylum. A spokeswoman for the International Organization of Migration, Simona Moscarelli, said Italy should evacuate the migrants to the Italian mainland. "It's quite a critical situation. That's why we are asking the government to organize as many trips, as many flights as possible," she told the BBC. Others have called on other EU members to take up migrants to help Italy out. Once in the EU, some of the migrants from Tunisia might try to reach French-speaking countries where their chances for employment could be higher. Italy, which has in the past been criticized for its handling of immigration issues, could send migrants without a job offer back to Africa.
by Staff Writers
Zarzis, Tunisia (AFP) Feb 14, 2011
Tunisian troops patrolled southern fishing ports Monday, controlling access and checking identities in a bid to halt a Europe-bound exodus of illegal immigrants that has alarmed Italy.

Armoured vehicles moved through the town of Zarzis and blocked entry to the port where soldiers armed with Kalashnikovs and truncheons allowed only people identified as fishermen to enter, an AFP reporter said.

Several checkpoints were also erected in the town.

The Tunisian government announced Sunday it would send in the troops as Italy called for help after about 5,000 illegal immigrants, most of them Tunisians, arrived on its tiny island of Lampedusa over five days.

The massive influx has become a hot topic for the European Union, whose foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton held talks with Tunisia's interim authorities in Tunis on Monday ahead of a later visit by Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini.

"The port is well guarded, we are doing everything to block the smugglers," an army officer told AFP on condition of anonymity.

"The smugglers are stopping the activity of the port and preventing people from working," he said.

Troops backed by coast guard vessels also worked around the port of Gabes, further south, setting up a control centre and working to prevent people from trying to cross the Mediterranean, according to the official news agency TAP.

Hundreds of youths from southern towns of Zarzis, Ben Guerdane, Tataouine, Medenine and Gafsa, all of them with a high jobless rate, have tried to illegally enter Europe in recent days in search of work.

"I am trying to persuade my children not to leave," said a Zarzis resident who only gave his name as Mohamed.

"If I have to, I will sell everything that I possess. I do not have much but I will fight for them to stay with their family," he said.

The wave of emigration comes despite Tunisia's so-called "Jasmine Revolution" a month ago, where massive anti-government protests ousted longtime strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, raising the hopes of many that a page was turning for this north African country.

But not those of 29-year-old former prisoner Muhamed Handoula, who survived the capsizing of an overloaded boat of would-be migrants bound for Italy on Friday.

"A friend of mine drowned as he gripped my neck," Handoula said, showing a journalist the marks from the experience. He was saved by a fisherman, he said, after six hours at sea holding on to the boat's motor.

"If I could do it again, I would," Handoula said. "There is no place for me in Tunisia. The Tunisian revolution was just talk."

Italy has warned of a humanitarian crisis after an increase in the influx of migrants in the month following Ben Ali's ouster on January 14.

It has called for help from the EU and said it wants to send its own security forces into Tunisia to halt the migrants, a suggestion that Tunis angrily rejected.

The quiet southeastern coastal town of Zarzis, with its blue and white buildings, suddenly has been catapulted front and center of the migration debate.

For years, Zarzis and the arid surrounding region have eked out a living on fishing, olive oil and tourism.

"It's Ben Ali's politics that created an unequal distribution of wealth and sparked a high unemployment rate," driving the exodus, said Shamseddine Bourassine, head of the local fishing union.

Whatever the cause, 18-year-old Addallah Aloutwiti has given up hope of a better life here.

"We work like animals for 10 dinars (five euros, $7) a day," Aloutwiti said. "For the next 50 years, there is no hope for us."

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