Hassene Dridi, Associated Press
TUNIS, Tunisia — Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi met with Tunisian leaders for tough talks aimed at halting the influx of illegal North African migrants who have been overrunning a tiny Italian island en route to mainland Europe.
Berlusconi has said he would urge Tunisia's leaders to do more to prevent jobless Tunisians from making the journey across the Mediterranean to the island of Lampedusa.
Some 23,000 illegal migrants, most of them Tunisians, have reached Italy's shores since mid-January when Tunisia's longtime dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, was ousted in a popular uprising. Ben Ali had clamped down on smugglers ferrying migrants to Italy, but the interim government replacing him has largely looked the other way.
"We are in a friendly country to resolve the problem of migrants. The climate of friendship, collaboration and cooperation is good," Berlusconi told reporters in the Casbah of the Tunisian capital.
However, Tunisia's new leaders signaled Berlusconi will face tough negotiations. Over the weekend, the Tunisian foreign ministry denied what it said were media reports of an agreement between Tunis and Rome on how to deal with the migrants.
Speaking Sunday, Berlusconi said he hoped the Tunisian government "which isn't a strong or elected government, can find a way to have the (Tunisian) police be in control enough so as to avoid new departures."
Berlusconi faces strong pressure at home to end the crisis. The premier owes his political survival in parliament to lawmakers loyal to the anti-immigrant Northern League, and is accompanied by a top official from the group.
Berlusconi met with Tunisia's caretaker president, Fouad Mebazaa, in the ancient city of Carthage before heading into talks with Prime Minister Beji Caid-Essebsi.
Berlusconi has promised to remove migrants from Lampedusa, which only has about 5,000 residents, and to send them to tent camps on the Italian mainland for deportation paperwork. Over the weekend, large ferries were evacuating hundreds of North Africans from the island.
In March alone, 78 boats reached Lampedusa. Smugglers charge about €1,000 ($1,400) per person for the trip in old fishing boats.
Some of the vessels are no longer seaworthy, particularly in rough waters. On Sunday, Italian police rescued 98 migrants, including five children, from a sinking boat. Most of those making the journey are unemployed young men who hope to find a better life in Europe.
Berlusconi has repeatedly appealed to other European countries for help, arguing that the wave of immigration is not just Italy's problem. Many of the Tunisians want to travel on to France or elsewhere in Europe to find relatives or jobs.
However, France, Tunisia's one-time colonial ruler, has turned back Tunisians who fled holding centers on the Italian mainland. Germany, a popular destination for migrants, is not eager to take in more. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said the European Union should try to help Tunisia improve its economic situation in order to slow the migration.
Last week, the EU's enlargement chief, Stefan Fule, said the bloc is ready to double its aid for development in Tunisia to €320 million ($454.6 million) over the next two years.
Even before the uprising that ousted Ben Ali, Tunisia suffered from 14 percent unemployment. The figure is believed to be higher now because the political turmoil has spooked foreign investors and badly hurt Tunisia's tourism industry, a pillar of the economy.
The Tunisian revolt helped spark uprisings across the Arab world, and there are fears the turmoil could increase migration to Europe from elsewhere in the region.
In Libya, Tunisia's neighbor, protests against dictator Moammar Gadhafi have escalated into a full-blown war. Since mid-February, more than 430,000 people have fled Libya, the vast majority migrant workers from Egypt, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. However, those refugees have used land crossings to reach countries surrounding Libya, and migration experts say there has been no sign yet of attempts of large numbers to reach Europe.
Karin Laub in Tunis contributed to this report.
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