Tunisia Rejects Italian Plan to Deploy Forces Against Illegal Immigrants

Posted by admin on Feb 18th, 2011

By RACHEL DONADIO and GAIA PIANIGIANI, New York Times, Feb. 14 2011

ROME — Tunisia on Monday rejected Italy’s offer to send its armed forces to help stop what one Italian official called an “unprecedented biblical exodus.” The official TAP news agency quoted a government spokesman as saying Tunisia, which deposed its autocratic president last month in a landmark uprising, “categorically rejects any interference in its internal affairs or offense against its sovereignty.”

In recent days, more than 3,000 Tunisians have illegally arrived by boat on the Italian island of Lampedusa, which is just off the coast of Sicily but is closer to Tunisia than the Italian mainland. On Sunday, the Italian interior minister, Roberto Maroni, offered to send Italian troops to help prevent illegal immigration.

With thousands of miles of hard-to-patrol coastline, Italy has been confronted with waves of illegal immigrants from North Africa since the 1990s. Two years ago, Italy renewed a bilateral accord with Tunisia that pledged financial support in exchange for help in preventing would-be immigrants from leaving the country.

But that accord seems to have unraveled since President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was forced from power last month in the face of a popular uprising.

Italy’s foreign minister, Franco Frattini, met with officials from the new Tunisian government on Monday to discuss the issue, and he will raise it with European Union officials on Wednesday, the Foreign Ministry said. On Saturday, the Italian cabinet declared a state of humanitarian emergency and called for help from the European Union in dealing with the Tunisian immigrants.

Mr. Maroni’s offer of military help pointed to growing concerns among Italians that the unrest in Tunisia and elsewhere in North Africa could lead to more immigrants on their shores.

The Italian Interior Ministry reopened an immigrant holding center on Lampedusa on Sunday and began airlifting immigrants to identification centers in Sicily and the Italian mainland, Italian news outlets reported.

Speaking from behind a high fence at Lampedusa’s sports center, where immigrants waited for the police to record their arrival, one young Tunisian said he left the country because the situation had not changed since mid-January.

“All we ask is for the chance to work in Europe, not only in Italy, but in Europe somewhere,” he said in an interview broadcast on the Italian news channel Sky TG24. “We only want one thing from Italian people: Help.”

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