The opening of immigration floodgates came as Italy announced that it would grant travel permits to more than 20,000 Tunisian refugees who have reached its southernmost islands in recent weeks.
The Italian government said the temporary permits would grant the refugees freedom of movement within the visa-free Schengen area, but in reality most want to head to France.
Paris reacted angrily to the move, with Claude Gueant, the interior minister, saying the country would not tolerate “a wave of immigration” and warning that migrants without appropriate identity documents and sufficient funds would be prevented from entering.
The Schengen zone excludes Britain and Ireland, but migrants could attempt to enter the UK illegally from the Continent.
The Tunisians are among nearly 26,000 migrants who have managed to reach the tiny island of Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost territory, since January, when president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was toppled by a popular revolt.
In neighbouring Libya, Col. Muammar Gadaffi’s regime is alleged to have been actively encouraging boatloads of migrants to leave the country’s shores since March 22, when the first vessel sailed from Tajoura, a suburb of Tripoli.
Libyan armed forces and militias are reportedly turning a blind eye to the thousands of people, many of them sub-Saharan migrant workers who have lost their jobs, who assemble on beaches willing to pay several hundred pounds to be transported to Lampedusa.
The UN estimates that almost 450,000 foreigners have been uprooted by the fighting in Libya but only 218,000 have been able to return home.
Libya appears to be making good on threats issued at the start of the coalition’s bombing campaign, when Moussa Ibrahim, the government spokesman, said the regime would no longer stop sub-Saharan and other refugees from trying to enter Europe by boat.
“There will be illegal immigration. It is a very lucrative business and the government had taken action against it, but it cannot any more. Libyans are involved, we are not stopping it.”
Col. Gaddafi warned two years ago that he had the ability to turn Europe “black” unless the European Union agreed to pay his regime at least £4 billion a year to block the arrival of illegal immigrants.
Speaking during a three-day visit to Italy in Aug 2010, he warned: “Tomorrow Europe might no longer be European and even black as there are millions who want to come in.” He was accused by Italian MPs of holding Europe to ransom but repeated the threat at a summit last year.
At the time Libyan naval vessels were patrolling the coastline and blocking the departure of migrants, in collaboration with the Italians, but that accord has now collapsed as a result of the Libyan civil war.
Nearly 400 boats loaded with illegal immigrants have reached Italy since January.
Some do not make it–Italian authorities scoured the Mediterranean on Thursday in the hope of finding survivors from a boat that sank in rough seas and high winds on Wednesday, having left the Libyan coast two days earlier.
Around 50 people were recovered but another 250 were missing, feared drowned, amid reports that many bodies could be seen floating in the sea.