Lampedusa: Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi visited Lampedusa on Wednesday as ships were readying to evacuate 6,000 migrants from Africa who were exhausting the tiny island`s resources.
"The `Free Lampedusa` plan began at midnight," Berlusconi told cheering residents. "In 48-60 hours Lampedusa will be inhabited only by the people of Lampedusa."
Berlusconi said the first batch of more than 1,000 migrants would be taken on a civilian vessel to a reception centre in Puglia in southern Italy.
"Around 1,400 migrants will be embarked on the Excelsior which will go to Taranto from where they will be taken by bus to the tent city at Manduria. This will be the first of the six boats to leave the island," he told reporters, without saying when the boat would sail.
He repeated that the Tunisian authorities had undertaken to halt the departure of the migrants.
"Tunisia has confirmed that no more people will leave," he said.
Mindful that residents had become increasingly wary of the migrant influx and angry over government inaction, the flamboyant Premier quipped that Rome would "propose Lampedusa for the Nobel Peace Prize”.
The billionaire media tycoon also promised a new golf course on the island, whose main industry is tourism, and announced that he had bought a house on Lampedusa via the Internet.
"I went online and bought a house at Cala Francese called The Two Palms. I`ll be a Lampedusa citizen too," Berlusconi said.
The Premier`s visit came as another rickety boat carrying around 100 people was towed into the port and aid organisations warned that living conditions for the some 6,000 migrants were untenable.
Italy also renewed an appeal to the European Union for help dealing not just with Tunisian migrants looking for a better life, but also with refugees from other parts of Africa formerly held in detention camps in Libya.
Since the conflict between rebel Libyan fighters and forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi began in mid-February, Eritreans, Ethiopians and Somalis have begun turning up on Lampedusa and other islands in the Pelagian archipelago, which lies closer to North Africa than to mainland Italy.
The Italian government has previously warned that hundreds of thousands of migrants could depart for Italy`s shores if Gaddafi`s regime falls, while the Libyan leader himself has threatened to send "millions" to Europe.
"These are not just economic migrants, and we continue to ask Europe to take action," Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told Sky TG24, adding that promises for "very limited European funds" were not enough.
An EU spokesman replied on Wednesday: "We have made around EUR 18 million (USD 25 million) available to Italy in 2010-2011 for repatriations, on top of EUR 25 million allocated to all member states for emergency measures."
Berlusconi, who held an emergency meeting in Rome late Tuesday to address the problem, announced tax breaks and compensation measures for Lampedusa residents.
Five boats were being used to transport the migrants off the island to reception centres in Sicily and the Italian mainland on Wednesday, including ferries and the naval amphibious assault ship San Marco.
The migrants are mainly young men, many of whom have been sleeping in the open air on the dock for days, herded into makeshift pens delineated by ropes or dustbins.
They have protested at their confinement but are also worried about where they are being taken and whether they will be free to seek employment.
Aid organisations and charities have denounced the government for poor management of the crisis, deploring that the migrants have only three chemical lavatories at their disposal -- and are forced to relieve themselves on a hill near the port.
On Wednesday, locals tried to clean up the area, nicknamed "shame hill”, ahead of Berlusconi`s visit.
The usually taciturn Italian President Giorgio Napolitano has condemned the situation as "unacceptable”.
"We must step up transportation to evacuate most of the people who have arrived," he said, calling on Italian regions that may have to put up the immigrants on a temporary basis to show "cohesion and solidarity”.