Italy has demanded that its European neighbours, starting with France, take on a share of the thousands of north Africans who have sailed to Italy amid the turmoil spreading through the Maghreb.
At least 12 migrants were reported drowned while attempting the crossing this week and Tunisians reaching the Italian-French border have been risking death on perilous mountain paths to avoid French police.
On Thursday Italy moved 2 000 migrants, mostly Tunisians, to camps on the Italian mainland from the tiny Mediterranean island of Lampedusa where Amnesty International said they had been denied “the most basic humanitarian assistance”.
The migrants “must be deported either to Tunisia or be spread around to other European countries”, said the foreign minister, Franco Frattini. “It’s stunning there is no solidarity from any of the European countries, including those which many Tunisians want to reach … France.”
More than 6 000 migrants are scheduled to be taken off Lampedusa, part of a total of 22 000 north Africans who have sailed to Italy this year, compared with 25 in the same period last year.
The pressure to find campsites has created friction within Silvio Berlusconi’s government, with the interior undersecretary, Alfredo Mantovano, resigning in protest as new arrivals pushed to 3 000 the number held at a site in Puglia designed to handle half that.
About 500 Tunisians sent to the camp have escaped, joining thousands heading to the French border, near Ventimiglia, where police have been checking trains and cars and turning them back as they try to enter.
Some have sought out the “death pass”, a mountain path on the border edged by 200m drops once used by Italians escaping Italy’s fascist regime.
Anis Zoryani, a Tunisian migrant, told the Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica he had made the five-hour, 35km trek on foot, only to be rounded up by police on the outskirts of Nice and sent back into Italy.
Tunisian authorities said 12 people died on Monday when a boat sank near the coast, while 11 sub-Saharan Africans reportedly picked up by two Egyptian fishing boats and taken to Lampedusa said six passengers sailing with them drowned when their boat sank.
The interior minister, Roberto Maroni, said 2 000 migrants had arrived from Libya, mostly Somalians and Eritreans.
A port authority spokesperson, Captain Cosimo Nicastro, said: “The weather has been bad for two days, reducing the sailings, but good weather will return by Saturday and we may see more then.”
Silvio Berlsuconi said on Thursday Tunisia “must accept the repatriation of its citizens”, some of whom could have escaped from the country’s jails.
The Tunisian government, he added, was doing nothing to stop boats leaving.
Frattini said Tunisian authorities had stopped 20 boats with 1 200 people aboard from leaving over the past 48 hours. As the ships began to take migrants to the mainland from Lampedusa on Thursday, 1 000 Tunisians yet to embark staged an angry demonstration, complaining about the conditions on the island and demanding not to be sent back to Tunisia. – guardian.co.uk