Italy declares immigration emergency

Italy's government called a humanitarian emergency on Saturdady after thousands of asylum-seekers sailed across the Meditarranean from Tunisia, overwhelming authorities on a remote island.

"The cabinet today ... has proclaimed a state of humanitarian emergency following the influx of the large number of citizens from North Africa," the government said in a statement.

The statement said that the decision to call an official emergency would enable civil protection officers "to take immediate action needed to control this phenomenon and assist citizens who have fled from North Africa."

In particular, the move will enable the central government to release funds for local authorities in areas which have been inundated by the wave of refugees, most of whom have fled to the tiny island of Lampedusa.

The majority of the asylum-seekers have come from nearby Tunisia, in the wake of the North African country's revolution four weeks ago.

Nearly 3,000 illegal immigrants have landed in Italy since Wednesday, according to a number of sources, including 250 overnight.

Most were packed into small fishing boats that were intercepted by coast guards and then taken to Lampedusa where they were given blankets and received medical care after stepping off the boats.

Hundreds have had to sleep out in the open at the port because of a lack of facilities on the island, while others were taken to local hotels.

The Italian authorities have organised an airlift and put a ferry into service to take some of the immigrants off Lampedusa, transporting them to identification centres in southern Sicily.
However around a thousand immigrants were still stuck on Lampedusa on Saturday despite the efforts to clear the island.

Italy made a formal request on Friday for aid from the European Union to combat what it warned was a looming humanitarian crisis, saying the EU's justice and home affairs council should meet immediately.

In a joint statement, Interior Minister Roberto Maroni and Foreign Minister Franco Frattini also requested "the immediate deployment of a Frontex mission for patrolling and interception off the Tunisian coast," referring to the EU's border security agency based in Warsaw.

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