On Friday afternoon alone four boats crowded with a total of some 300 Tunisians reached Lampedusa, an island that is closer to northern Africa than it is to the Italian mainland. Earlier in the day, the U.N. refugee agency said some 1,600 Tunisians had landed in Italy since Jan. 16, with half of them coming in the last few days.
Italian Coast Guard boats, which spotted them approaching shore, escorted to the boats to the island. Coast Guard video showed hundreds of Tunisians, predominantly young men, crowded on the decks of motorized fishing boats.
Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said he feared Tunisian terrorists were among those who escaped Tunisian prisons and fled during a month of nationwide anti-government protests that forced dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee on Jan. 14.
"There is the risk of a real and true humanitarian emergency," Maroni said Friday, adding he has asked the European Union to raise the issue since it is affecting Europe's internal security.
Italy's flow of illegal immigrants had fallen after its 2008 agreement with Libya to return would-be migrants without screening them first for asylum. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has condemned that policy as a violation of would-be migrants' rights to seek asylum and flee oppression, humanitarian crises and war.
Nevertheless, the policy has worked in reducing the number of boat arrivals in Italy. In 2008, before it went into effect, about 36,000 migrants arrived illegally; by 2009 the number had fallen to 9,500, and in 2010 to 4,300, UNHCR said.
Maroni said Friday the surge in Tunisian arrivals stems from the fact that Tunisia is no longer honoring a bilateral agreement to manage immigration. Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said he would meet next week with new Tunisian Foreign Minister Ahmed Ounaies to discuss reactivating the immigration accords.
"It's a real alarm," Frattini said. "We are in the presence of a true migratory emergency and we don't believe that Italy is the only place where they'll arrive and remain."
He said Europe should start thinking in longer terms about a "Marshall Plan" for affected Mediterranean countries to stimulate their economies and provide opportunities for young people so they don't feel compelled to leave.
The UNHCR's Federico Fossi said U.N. refugee workers were arriving in Lampedusa on Friday to assess the situation. The island's immigration holding center has closed, so some migrants are being housed in hotels while others have been shipped to other centers.