Italy and Tunisia have struck a deal to choke off the flood of Tunisians heading to Italian shores, with Rome agreeing to give short-term residency papers to 20,000 illegal migrants but intent on deporting new arrivals.
Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni told reporters that the measures would allow Italy "to turn off the faucet" on illegal immigration.
Maroni, a key member of the anti-immigrant Northern League ally in Premier Silvio Berlusconi's coalition, spoke in the Tunisian capital, Tunis, after wrapping up two days of talks to nail down an agreement.
Under the accord, Maroni said Italy would supply Tunisia's security forces with the "assistance and means," to stop the flourishing smuggling rings which have seen thousands cram into rickety fishing boats for the nighttime crossing to Lampedusa, a tiny Italian island close to Tunisia's coast.
Most of the migrants _ who pay as much as euro1,000 ($1,400) for the journey, convinced it will bring them a better life _ say they aim to eventually reach France or another European country to find jobs or family and don't intend staying in Italy.
Sky TG 24 TV, reporting from Tunis, said Berlusconi's Cabinet on Wednesday will approve a decree allowing the 20,000 Tunisians already in Italy to receive residence permits good for six months.
Some in Berlusconi's government has been pushing for such permits, arguing that once Tunisians get them, they can use the document to cross the border into France under provisions of Europe's Schengen visa-free treaty. French police have rebuffed hundreds of Tunisians in recent days at the border with Italy.
Many of the Tunisians at the French border had fled from holding camps Italy set up on the mainland to contain migrants transferred from Lampedusa, which had run out of space and shelter.
Details of the accord weren't immediately unveiled, but both sides said the deal provided for deportations in the future.
Sky said any Tunisians arriving illegally after the Cabinet passes the decree would immediately be deported back home, raising the specter of mass deportations.
But Tunisian Interior Ministry spokesman Neji Zari told The Associated Press in Tunisia late Tuesday that there had been disagreement over deportations, including on how many, and that Tunis opposes any collective sending back of the migrants.
Tunisia has insisted on "respect for the rights of immigrants, their dignity and the need for them to be well treated," Zari said.
Most of the 22,000 migrants who have arrived on Italian shores since January are young Tunisian men who fled during political upheaval in their homeland.
Maroni has said since the crisis began that few of them would be eligible for political asylum, and only a very small number are reported to have applied for it.
Associated Press Writer Bouazza ben Bouazza contributed to this report from Tunis.