Europe should help Italy cope with a massive influx of migrants from North Africa, the U.N. refugee agency said Tuesday, as fears mounted of a deeper crisis with the possible arrival of waves of refugees from Libya.
Since the start of the year, almost 15,000 Tunisians have crossed the Mediterranean and landed in the tiny island of Lampedusa, closer to Africa than to mainland Italy. About 5,000 are currently on the island _ doubling the population and raising fears of a sanitation crisis. The island's migrant center, built for 800, is housing twice as many people.
"Many people are unable to find shelter from rain and cold weather," said a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Adrian Edwards. "Hygiene conditions are dire," he added, urging Italy to ease the overcrowding.
Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni travels Wednesday to Tunisia to discuss stemming the influx. In a meeting Tuesday in Rome, he gained assurances from Italian regional authorities that they would take in thousands of migrants, and arranged for a Navy ship to travel to Lampedusa and transfer some of them.
Maroni said Tuesday that a "question mark" still remains over possible arrivals from Libya of "refugees fleeing a dramatic situation."
The UNHCR urged EU solidarity saying "it is crucial that the situation on Lampedusa not impede Italian preparedness for arrivals of persons fleeing the situation in Libya, as such persons would be likely to have international protection needs."
Italy has asked fellow European nations to share the burden of looking after the refugees. So far, the EU border agency has sent a team in to help, but Italy is insisting on far more tangible support from individual nations.
Since allied forces launched air strikes on Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's forces days ago, Rome has argued that its active cooperation in the military campaign should compel European partners to take some of the immigrants off its hands. Italy has offered the coalition the use of seven military bases for its aircraft as well as eight of its own jets for use in missions.
The mission, however, has created unease in Maroni's own party, the anti-immigrant Northern League _ a key government ally. The party fears the military operation will backfire, as more immigrants will arrive on Italy's coast. It is demanding the government press the EU to take concrete action.