North African migrant crisis pressures Berlusconi

Thousands of Tunisian refugees inundate island near Sicily that lives off of fishing and tourism; local residents slam Italian government's inaction.

Tunisian Refugees Italy 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Tunisian Refugees Italy 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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.
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.
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."