Italy migrant influx intensifies on Lampedusa island

A migrant boat from Tunisia arriving at Lampedusa, 27 Mar 11
Image caption This year most migrants have arrived on crowded boats from Tunisia

Nearly 2,000 African migrants, many of them Eritreans and Somalis, have arrived on Italy's tiny, overcrowded Lampedusa island in the past 24 hours.

It is one of the biggest migrant waves to reach Lampedusa this year.

Officials warn of a public health risk on Lampedusa, which is struggling to cope with some 7,000 migrants - more than the local population.

Boatloads of migrants arrived from war-torn Libya, for the first time in months, while others came from Tunisia.

"Until now the only migrants to arrive in Lampedusa were Tunisians," said Laura Boldrini, a spokeswoman for the UN's refugee agency.

"This is the first boat coming from Libya with people fleeing the military escalation, the vendettas and the retaliation attacks," she said.

A boat carrying some 300 migrants was escorted by the Italian coastguard to Linosa, an even smaller island some 50km (35 miles) north of Lampedusa.

The passengers were mostly Somalis, Eritreans and Ethiopians and included a woman who had just given birth - she and the baby were flown to Lampedusa for medical care.

Tunisia upheaval

But women and children are also reported to be among some 300 migrants on a boat off Lampedusa which is taking on water. A rescue is now under way.

Nearly 19,000 migrants, mostly Tunisians, have arrived on Lampedusa this year, since Tunisia's revolution in January. The island lies just 113 kilometres (70 miles) from Tunisia.

Most have been moved to holding centres elsewhere in Italy, as the one on Lampedusa was designed to accommodate a maximum of 800.

The Italian government has appealed to the European Union for help.

Dozens of migrants are sheltering in improvised tents dotted around Lampedusa, as the holding centre is overcrowded and unhygienic, Reuters news agency reports.

Before this year's uprising in Libya the Italian authorities sent boatloads of migrants back to Libya, under a deal with Col Muammar Gaddafi.

Enforcement of that deal led to a sharp drop in the numbers heading to Italy from Libya.

Burden-sharing plea

Migrants who can prove they are refugees from a conflict are eligible for asylum in the EU under human rights conventions.

The European Commission says EU member states must address the surge in migration produced by the unrest in North Africa.

Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom issued an "appeal to member states to accept refugees" in her blog on Friday.

"Already today there are a number of people who can't go back home and there could be more people in the coming days.

"It is not reasonable that the member states closest by geographical measures take the whole responsibility - if we will face a large inflow of refugees, all member states must do their part to share the responsibility."

Last week she told reporters that "we are talking about sub-Saharans, mainly Eritreans, and some Sudanese and Ethiopians, stuck in no-man's-land" on Libya's borders with Tunisia and Egypt.

She said up to 270 were stuck on the Egyptian border and a few thousand in Tunisia.

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