As many as 2,500 illegal immigrants a week are flooding into the continent from North Africa through Italy, the European Union’s border protection agency has revealed.
The official figures, which came from Warsaw based Frontex, show that for the first three months of this year 33,000 people entered Europe illegally with 22,600 coming through Italy.
Most of those were economic migrants from Tunisia and sub-Sahran Africa who had fled countries that had been hit by popular uprisings in what was dubbed the Arab Spring.
Many of them came through the rocky Italian outcrop of Lampedusa on rickety fishing boats pushing the island’s limited resources to the limit with numbers at one point being double that of the 5,000 local inhabitants.
The figures were revealed in Athens by Frontex deputy director Gil Arias Fernandez during a visit to Greece which up until this year was the main entry point for illegal immigrants into Europe.
Mr Fernandez said that for the first quarter of this year just 7,200 illegal entries were registered in Greece – last year for the same period just 147 illegal migrants had been detected trying to enter Italy, compared to 13,085 attempting to get into Greece.
He added that while it was difficult to predict what would happen in the rest of the year, ‘the situation will remain quite dramatic in the central Mediterranean.’
Frontex and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees have said that more than 41,000 people have attempted to enter Europe through Lampedusa and other Italian islands.
With perfect timing the announcement from Frontex came as coastguards on Lampedusa intercepted a boat carrying 290 illegal immigrants, which added to the 1,600 that had arrived during the weekend.
One British official involved in illegal immigration in Italy said, ‘This is a big, big problem and added to this we still have the criminal gangs who are bringing people in.
‘We have passed on information that has helped intercept three boats involved in criminal people smuggling but that is a drop in the ocean compared to the huge numbers coming over.’
Many illegal immigrants have drowned in their attempts to cross from north Africa with dozens of boats sinking and other still missing and officials say with the summer fast approaching traffic will increase.
Italy has complained that other European states are not doing enough to help with the situation and there was a tense stand off with France who simply sent them back when they crossed over.
Before the civil war began Libyan patrol boats stopped any vessel attempting to set sail in a deal agreed with Italy and before the bombing campaign started mad dog Colonel Gaddafi threatened to turn Europe ”black through illegal immigration” in an attempt to ward off military intervention.
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