Tunisia has angrily rejected any notion that Italian police will be allowed onto its soil to stem the wave of migrants leaving the country for the island of Lampedusa.
However the government has said it is ready to co-operate with Rome and any other government to halt illegal emigration.
Around 5,000 migrants have landed on Lampedusa in the past week, so many that the authorities there have reopened a refugee centre that was closed more than a year ago. It is a bid to discourage boats from setting out for the barren island, which is just 140 kilometres from the Tunisian coast.
Many other boats, most of which are barely seaworthy and dangerously overloaded, are on their way and there is a constant stream of arrivals, overwhelming the Italians.
“After so many years under Ben Ali the Tunisian people have regained their democracy. But there is great weariness. Among the many people who are reaching the Italian shores, many are probably real refugees, including many political refugees, and not just economic migrants,” said Daniela Pompei from the charity Community of Sant’Egidio.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is visiting Tunisia to look at ways of tackling the problem, and the Italians have declared a humanitarian state of emergency and called for EU aid to help deal with the crisis.