Italy preparing for mass exodus from North Africa

ROME Thu Mar 3, 2011 6:03pm IST

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ROME (Reuters) - Italy is preparing for a potential mass exodus of migrants escaping political turmoil in North Africa, a government minister said on Thursday, after flows of illegal immigrants from Tunisia picked up overnight.

Waves of hundreds of migrants fleeing to Italy to escape instability have resumed in recent days after stormy weather that had discouraged boats in the past week cleared up.

Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said an aid mission to Tunisia to provide food and medical help was aimed at handling the refugee situation in North Africa, but it was already preparing for a potential surge of immigrants in Italy.

"We've got a Plan B ready," Maroni told a news conference. "Authorities are putting together a plan to handle the immigrants should they arrive."

Three boats arrived in the Sicilian island of Lampedusa overnight with about 160 migrants on board. They followed some 500 migrants who arrived on Wednesday.

More than 6,000 migrants from Tunisia have arrived in Italy since the overthrow of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in mid-January.

Tens of thousands have fled violence in Libya and crossed the border to Tunisia since an uprising against Muammar Gaddafi prompted a violent crackdown by security forces.

The refugee emergency is straining Tunisia's aid capacity to the limit. Italy is one of several European countries that has agreed to help evacuate Egyptian workers fleeing Libya and bring them home to Egypt.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government, which has made cracking down on illegal immigration a priority, has been alarmed by the prospect of a new wave of immigrants arriving by boat to Italy due to the unrest in North Africa.

Rome has declared the recent wave of immigrants a humanitarian emergency and has already warned that hundreds of thousands could flee to Italy.

It has urged European partners to provide funds and help in housing, but some EU governments have said it is too early to predict how many people could seek shelter from turmoil in north Africa in Europe.

(Reporting by Catherine Hornby; Editing by Peter Graff)

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