They are arriving in their scores, crammed onto small craft. In the last week alone, an estimated 5,500 illegal immigrants, mainly from Tunisia, have landed on the southern coast of Italy.
It is a massive influx aimed mainly at the island of Lampedusa.
The tiny island only has 6,000 inhabitants itself. It is just 138 kilometres from the Tunisian coast.
Hundreds of young Tunisians from towns like Zarziz, Ben Guerdane, Tataoiune, Medenine and Gafsa, have joined the exodus towards Europe driven by high unemployment at home.
“We’re not afraid to go from Djerba to Lampedusa,” said one voyager. “It’s 24-hours on a boat by sea. You pay 2,000 dinars – about 1,500 euros.”
Italy declared a humanitarian emergency on Saturday and re-opened the Lampedusa centre for identification and expulsion. More than 2,000 immigrants jammed in, the majority young Tunisian men.
“I come from Tunisia, everyone you see here comes from Tunisia, we are all afraid after the revolution that has taken place because nothing has changed,” said one newly arrived immigrant. “From the 14th of January nothing has changed. All of us here, we are not asking for anything, we only ask for a possibility to find work in Europe.”
Italy has already dealt with significant waves of illegal immigration, but since a controversial deal with Libya signed in 2008, the numbers have tumbled in recent years from 36,000 to 4,300 last year.
But this latest influx has caught Italy and the European Union unawares. Mario Marazzitti from the Catholic humanitarian organisation Sant’Egido said: “I think that it is correct that in an international crisis now we have to find immediately a European table (sic) and decide who can help Italy to bear this weight.”
Marazzitti said this current flow of immigrants is not going to stop in the near future. He compared it to the wave of Albanians who headed into Italy after the fall of communism in 1991.
Influx of North Africans with sights set on Italy