TUNIS, Tunisia — Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said Monday he hopes to reach an agreement soon with Tunisia to help halt the influx of illegal North African migrants who've been overrunning a tiny Italian island en route to mainland Europe.
Berlusconi said he is confident a future accord would satisfy both sides and indicated that Italy could help Tunisia finance its border controls — in a bid to nab jobless Tunisians bent on crossing the Mediterranean before they reach the Italian island of Lampedusa.
Some 23,000 illegal immigrants, 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 that replaced him — overwhelmed with other challenges — has largely looked the other way.
Berlusconi said there are currently some 6,000 migrants on the island, which has a population of just 5,000. Many were transferred to the Italian mainland for deportation paperwork on Sunday, but others continue to arrive, with 800 reaching Lampedusa overnight, the Italian premier said.
Still, he was optimistic a solution would soon be reached.
"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.
"There is a nice, great willingness on both sides to find solutions, which range from control of the coast by Tunisian law enforcement forces to our willingness to provide help in terms of land and sea vehicles so that this control can be widespread," he said at a news conference. Berlusconi met with Tunisia's caretaker president, Fouad Mebazaa, in the ancient city of Carthage before holding talks with Prime Minister Beji Caid-Essebsi.
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.
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.
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.Comment on this story
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.
Tunisians have argued that Europeans should show some leniency with them, considering they're grappling with the twin challenges of the fallout from their own revolution and the massive influx of migrants from Libya.
Karin Laub in Tunis contributed to this report.