Hundreds of Tunisians have been landing on a tiny Sicilian island by the boatload, swelling the numbers of illegal migrants arriving on Italian shores in less than a week to well over 4,000.
Sixteen boats arrived on Lampedusa in less than 24 hours, on Sunday, Palermo-based coast guard official Claudia Viccica said.
Many of the migrants were crammed on to ageing fishing boats or motorised dinghies after reportedly paying hundreds of euros to smugglers for the trip across the Mediterranean.
The Tunisians are fleeing confusion following street protests and the January 14 ousting of their long-time autocratic president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Some are seeking jobs, others are worried about violence, and some are said to be “close to the entourage” of Mr Ben Ali and seeking protection, according to Laura Boldrini, a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Italy.
Even Linosa, an even more remote island in the archipelago, had a boatload of migrants arrive, the Italian news agency Ansa said.
Foreign minister Franco Frattini, who already was scheduled to go to Syria and Jordan this week, is adding a last-minute stop in Tunis to discuss the exodus with the Tunisian prime minister, foreign ministry officials said.
Many of the arrivals were held in a fenced-in football field until ferries could take them to the mainland for document checks. Those ineligible for asylum risk deportation.