LAMPEDUSA, Italy - Hunched in a sidestreet in the sleepy port of Lampedusa and holding his last cigarette between his fingers, Mohamed Ben Amar is part of a growing problem for Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Ben Amar and thousands of others have braved a cramped and dangerous voyage from Tunisia to the tiny island off Sicily since the overthrow of former President Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali in January re-opened the route into Europe.RELATED:Gov’t set to approve plan to help Tunisian olim
"In Tunisia, you need relations to get a job in a good factory," the 35 year-old auto electrician said. "And even if you do work, you don't earn anything -- 10 dinars ($7). At the end of the day it's gone, you don't keep anything."
Now he and over 5,000 others, immediately recognizable in their unwashed
jeans and short jackets, kill time, wandering around the streets and
hillsides of Lampedusa, a quiet island 200 km (120 miles) south of
Sicily that lives off fishing and tourism.
Berlusconi's government has demanded help from its European Union
partners and has pledged more than 200 million euros in aid and credit
lines to the Tunisian government to help clamp down on the flow of
"clandestini" (clandestine migrants).
But it has come under increasing pressure itself for failing to deal
with a problem which, like the recurring garbage crisis in Naples, has
been held up by the opposition and sections of the press as a stark
symbol of government incompetence.
A naval transport vessel took around 1,000 people from the island this
week and cruise ships are expected to take more, but the numbers of
migrants have been replenished by the boats that stagger into port
daily, packed to the gunwales.
On Saturday alone, there were around 1,000 new arrivals and the flow continued on Sunday.
"The situation is very dramatic because there has been absolutely no
reliable information from the central government getting through," said
Salvatore Martello, a local businessman and former mayor of Lampedusa.
Martello, one of a number of community leaders who have denounced
government inaction, says Rome has abandoned Lampedusa, whose resident
population is now almost outnumbered by the migrants.
"You can't just go from 800 (migrants) to 5,000 or 6,000, otherwise you destroy the balance of the island," he said.
"THEY ARE HUNGRY"
With the immigrant reception center behind the port long filled to
overflowing, newcomers find shelter in improvised tents of plastic
sheets that dot the island.
Every morning, hundreds come down from a rubbish-strewn camp on a hill
overlooking the commercial port for a handout of milk and bread
distributed by aid workers and soldiers. There are no toilets and the
only water for washing comes from a tanker.
A strong smell of unwashed bodies hangs over the port but the residents
of Lampedusa have shown a striking lack of resentment against the
migrants themselves, reserving most of their ire for the government.
"They are hungry and they need help and it's only ordinary people here
who are helping them. The government isn't doing anything," said
Salvatore Palmisano, a fisherman handing out part of the morning's catch
from the back of his boat.
With the first boats showing up from Libya and worried by the prospect
that the fighting there could set off an even bigger exodus from North
Africa, Foreign Minister Franco Frattini has proposed offering up to
1,500 euros ($2,100) to Tunisians willing to return home.
But he has run into problems from Berlusconi's coalition allies in the anti-immigrant Northern League.
"I wouldn't give them anything, I'd throw them out and send them home,"
the party's fiery leader Umberto Bossi was quoted as saying in Italian
media on Saturday.
Lampedusa's hospitable culture and a maritime tradition of assisting
those in distress has so far helped prevent serious problems with the
island's residents. But there is palpable tension among the hundreds of
men milling about on the dockside. "It wouldn't take very much to set
this off and then we would be really in it," said one policeman, who
spoke on condition of anonymity. "I don't think they (the government in
Rome) really know what we're dealing with here," he said.
Meanwhile, Mohamed Ben Amar, who like many others wants to join relatives in France, waits for news.
"I haven't changed my clothes, I haven't had a shower. I haven't taken
off my trousers for four days, you can see the diesel stains there," he
said, pointing to the marks on his clothes from a 33-hour voyage in a
boat with 120 others.
"I want to work but it's whatever God wants. I want to go to France, but we have to see what God decides."