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Refugee Crisis Builds at Tunisia Border

An article published in the Wall Street Journal on March 2, 2011. By Stacy Meichtry
Refugee Crisis Builds at Tunisia Border

Picture from AP Emilio Morenatti (The Wall Street Journal)

"The Italian government voted to send a large mission of aid workers to Tunisia to help the tens of thousands of refugees fleeing Libya—an attempt to also stem the flow of migrants flocking from north Africa to Italy's southern shores.

Thousands fleeing the violence in Libya flock to a makeshift refugee camp on the Tunisian border, where they appeal for their governments to evacuate them. Video courtesy of Reuters.

Violence in Libya has triggered an exodus of up to 75,000 refugees to Tunisia, to the west. The refugees include thousands of guest workers from countries in Asia and elsewhere in Africa who are awaiting authorization to enter Tunisia, creating a bottleneck of migrants in need of food, water and shelter.


Thousands of foreigners, mainly Egyptians, are making it into Tunisia; in an effort to prevent a major humanitarian crisis, Tunisian authorities are trying to dispatch as many refugees as possible to ports along the Mediterranean coast.


Meanwhile, an additional 70,000 people, mostly Egyptians, have crossed into Egypt from Libya, according to the International Organization for Migration.

There are an estimated one million Egyptians working in Libya. Egypt, where the economy is still struggling from the revolt that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak, will be hard-pressed to handle returning workers.

The U.S. is also sending assistance teams to Libya's borders with Egypt and Tunisia.

The Italian humanitarian mission, which was approved during a late-night meeting of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's cabinet, is aimed at sending enough food, medicine and workers to help up to 10,000 refugees, according to an official who attended the meeting.

So far the brunt of what many say is likely to turn into a full-blown migration crisis for Europe has fallen on Lampedusa, a tiny Mediterranean island that—just 100 miles off the coast of Tunisia—has long been the gateway for people escaping Tunisia, Libya, and other strife-torn countries such as Eritrea and Somalia.

More than 6,000 migrants from Tunisia have arrived in Lampedusa since unrest began in Tunisia in December. Italy's foreign ministry said hundreds of thousands of migrants were expected in the coming months to flee violence in Libya, attempting the three-day journey from Libya's coastline to Lampedusa and the island state of Malta.

An estimated 2.5 million would-be migrants from south of the Sahara Desert have been kept bottled up in Libya by Col. Moammar Gadhafi's government for years, according to Italian officials.

Under a so-called friendship treaty signed in 2008 with Italy, Col. Gadhafi agreed to plug migration routes along the Libyan coast. That deal has been suspended as a result of the recent unrest.

In Lampedusa, the situation has reached emergency levels.

Italy's Coast Guard, unable to handle all the rescue operations needed to save those who try to cross treacherous waters between North Africa and Lampedusa by boat, has enlisted the help of the island's fishermen.

The expected influx from North Africa catches the European Union with no common policy for dealing with migrants. So far, the EU has relied on Southern member states such as Italy, Spain and Malta to absorb the impact.

France warned it wouldn't accept any of the recently landed migrants who didn't qualify for asylum, even though many Tunisians arriving in Lampedusa speak French and have family in French cities.

Ramzi Ghobantini, a 33-year-old Tunisian physics teacher who arrived in Lampedusa two weeks ago, said he might stay in Italy or try to make his way to France, where he attended university. Mr. Ghobantini said his friends and family feared for his safety in Tunisia after he publicly criticized a senior government official who is still in power.

Many of his colleagues had already been thrown in prison by the government, so he paid €1000 ($1,370) to cram into a small boat with 80 other people bound for Lampedusa. "I wept the whole way," recalled Mr. Ghobantini.

For now, the United Nations and Italy are treating the Tunisian migrants who have arrived as potential refugees eligible to apply for political asylum and free to move about, according to Barbara Molinario, who heads the Lampedusa office of the U.N.'s High Commissioner for Refugees.

Lampedusa is still recovering from the siege of migrants that struck the island in February. In the first few days of the onslaught, migrants slept out on the docks under plastic sheets, says Paola La Rosa, an islander who scrambled to find accommodations for the migrants. Hundreds were given refuge inside a church oratory while others bunked in the island's convalescence home, she said.

At one point, water faucets ran dry, because the island has a limited supply of fresh water. Today, a field just across the street the mayor's office has become a dumping ground for dozens of abandoned migrant boats emblazoned with Arabic script and wreaking of fumes from unused fuel.

Lampedusa's immigration "welcome center," a walled compound that remained shut in the early days of the influx, is finally up and running, supplying bowls of pasta, clothes, cigarettes and beds for up to 850 migrants. Still, the facility is far too small for the volume of migrants expected to come.

In other parts of the island, hospitality is wearing thin. On Friday, hundreds of islanders gathered in the port's main piazza to protest the impact the migrants have had on the two main pillars of the island's economy: fishing and tourism.

Antonella Sparma, the 50-year-old owner of a beach resort, arrived with a sheet with the words: "Illegal immigrants, the future of Lampedusa!"

But Vito Diodato, 44-year-old skipper of the Chiara Luna, said that when, on a recent fishing trip, he received an SOS call from the Coast Guard, he couldn't refuse. He raced for two hours through six-foot swells to reach migrants who had been at sea for three days. The Chiara Luna rescued 38 Tunisian migrants, and limped back to the Lampedusa port with a huge gash in its hull.

Rescuing migrants at sea is the "duty" of every fisherman, even if it comes at a high price, he said. "Just wait until the weather warms," warned Mr. Diodato."

—David Gauthier-Villars in Sfax, Tunisia, and David Luhnow in Cairo contributed to this article.

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