Fresh influx of Tunisian boat people reaches Italy in past 24 hours, UN reports

An Italian coastguard vessel rescues Tunisians afloat on a raft near Lampedusa

15 March 2011 – Twenty-two boats carrying more than 1,600 persons, nearly all young Tunisian males, have landed on the small Italian island of Lampedusa in the past 24 hours, bringing the number of Tunisians reaching Italy since mid-January to just over 10,000, the United Nations refugee agency reported today.

“The outflow from Tunisia is unrelated to the ongoing crisis in Libya,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Melissa Fleming told a news briefing in Geneva, referring to the fighting under way between forces loyal to Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Al-Qadhafi and opponents seeking his ouster.

“From our interactions with Tunisians arriving in Italy over past weeks, we believe that most are seeking employment and better economic opportunities, rather than international protection.”

Departures are taking place from various locations along the Tunisian coastline and UNHCR staff on Lampedusa and are trying to help the Italian authorities deal with the situation.

UN staff and partners in Tunisia, the scene of a popular uprising that drove out long-time president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January, report that some villages appear largely empty of their young male population, with only women, children and elderly people remaining.

“This type of outflow is not atypical of countries in transition, and we are well aware of the many demands on the Tunisian authorities at present,” Ms. Fleming said.

“Solutions to this type of flow need to be found in dialogue between the concerned governments, including arrangements for the orderly and dignified return of persons who are found not to be in need of international protection, and the establishment of opportunities for labour migration which can meet the needs of countries on both sides of the Mediterranean.”

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