It's no coincidence that the first boats full of migrants arrived at the tiny southern Italian island of Lampedusa just two days after a revolution overthrew Tunisia's strongman Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. That's about how long it takes for a rickety, overloaded ship to cross that stretch of the Mediterranean Sea.
The arrivals were few at first small boats of a dozen or so people. But in recent days, as clenched-fist stability in Tunisia gave way to democracy and then near anarchy, the ships became larger, more crowded and more numerous. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), some 5,700 Tunisians have landed in Lampedusa since Jan. 16 5,000 of them in the past five days leaving Italian authorities scrambling to accommodate what they describe as an exodus of "biblical proportions."
If Sicily is a ball being kicked by the Italian boot, the island of Lampedusa is an earthworm buried deep in the soil beneath. A stretch of largely denuded rock tucked in a corner between Tunisia and Libya, its location has long made it a magnet for North Africans seeking a better life or a claim for political asylum. In 2008, a peak year for migration, some 31,000 illegal migrants reached Lampedusa, mostly from Libya, at a rate of roughly 600 a week far slower that what has been seen in the past few days.
But in recent years, the arrivals have slowed. In 2009, Italy pressed Libya to join Tunisia in accepting financial assistance in exchange for keeping a close watch on its coastlines, and the boats stopped arriving. An immigration center in Lampedusa, completed in 2007, was shuttered just two years later when aggressive patrols on land and at sea successfully blocked migrants from arriving.
On Sunday, however, the center was opened again and filled far over capacity. Built to accommodate 800 people, it now houses more than 2,000 migrants, many sleeping two to a bed, on the floor or outside between the buildings. "It's a humanitarian emergency," says Simona Moscarelli, a program officer with the International Organization for Migration who flew to Lampedusa in response to the crisis. "These people need to eat, they need to be clothed, they need to drink. Every problem of distribution is a logistical nightmare."
The arrivals include at least a dozen women, a handful of minors and a man in a wheelchair, but the vast majority are working-age men. "There are people who say they're just fleeing poverty," says Federico Fossi, a spokesman at the UNHCR. "There are others who say they are fleeing from political insecurity." Some have said they left fearing armed gangs or snipers in the street. A few are expected to petition Italy for asylum or to return to Tunisia when the country has stabilized, but the majority of those spoken to by aid workers have said they plan to move on to France, where they speak the language and often have friends or relatives.
For now, a spate of rough weather in the southern Mediterranean seems to have slowed the rate of new arrivals. Very few migrants arrived at Lampedusa on Monday. The question is what will happen when the skies clear. Italy's Interior Minister Roberto Maroni has compared the collapse of the Tunisian and Egyptian governments to the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the sudden end of communist rule in Eastern Europe sparked decades of illegal immigration. And indeed, since the fall of the Tunisian dictator, Rome has struggled to find counterparts in the government in Tunis. On Monday, the Tunisian government rejected an Italian proposal to deploy armed forces to Tunisia to patrol the country's borders, but pledged to do more to halt the exodus pent up by years of autocracy. Dictators may be able to seal their borders with ease. It's another thing altogether for a democracy, never mind an unstable transitional government like the one currently in place in Tunisia. The influx is unlikely to end anytime soon.