Migrant rush on Italy's Lampedusa amid crisis in Tunisia

Charity says most of the 170 people it rescued on flimsy boats had boarded in Tunisia

A group, thought to be migrants from Tunisia, aboard a flimsy wooden boat wait to be assisted by rescue teams near the Italian island of Lampedusa. AP
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Hundreds of migrants have arrived by boat on the Italian island of Lampedusa in the past two days, amid political crisis across the Mediterranean in Tunisia.

The charity Open Arms said most of the 170 people it rescued near Italy's southernmost island had set sail from Tunisia, about 110 kilometres away.

Open Arms, a Spanish non-government organisation involved in search and rescue at sea, said migrants were found adrift on board six flimsy boats south of Lampedusa.

The island is a longstanding entry point for migrants and refugees trying to reach Europe.

At least 875 people landed on Thursday on Friday and more than 1,100 were now sheltering on the island, Italian media said.

There were 27 different landings, with some Tunisians intercepted by patrol boats in the early hours of the morning.

Italy expressed concern about the situation in Tunisia after President Kais Saied announced he was suspending parliament and dismissing the prime minister.

Rome said a political and economic crisis was being exacerbated by the epidemiological situation – with Covid-19 lockdowns in place to manage a new outbreak.

Tunisia is a key partner in stemming the flow of migrants from Africa to Europe, with EU members divided over how to manage the arrivals.

But Tunisians themselves now make up one of the largest groups of people seeking asylum in Europe.

From 2019 to 2020, the number of people reaching Italy from Tunisia grew by almost 400 per cent.

The rise to more than 13,000 people came in a year when migrant flows were restricted by the pandemic.

Italy is touting its assistance to Tunisia, with 80,000 litres of oxygen to help manage the pandemic delivered to the country on Friday.

Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio told his Tunisian counterpart Othman Jerandi that Rome and Brussels would work to ensure Tunisia’s stability.

The EU invested about $1.9 billion in Tunisia from 2014 to 2020, in an effort to support democracy and provide social and economic aid.

Italy also provides assistance to Libyan coast guards, in order to help them manage migration flows from Libya's coastline.

Lampedusa saw a surge in arrivals in May when more than 1,400 people arrived in one weekend.

The mass landings sparked fresh calls from far-right politicians for action to stem the flow.

Updated: July 30, 2021, 2:35 PM