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As Tunisian migrants begin to arrive, Italy fears 'epic emergency'

More than 4,000 Tunisian migrants have arrived on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa in since the fall of longtime strongman Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

On Saturday Italy declared a humanitarian emergency and called for EU assistance.

A spokeswoman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Simona Moscarelli, said Italy must fly migrants from Lampedusa to the Italian mainland as soon as possible.

"It's quite a critical situation. That's why we are asking the government to organise as many trips, as many flights as possible," she told the BBC's World Today programme, by phone from Lampedusa.

She described the migrants as "a mixed flow" - some were fleeing insecurity in Tunisia, following last month's uprising there, while others were seizing the chance to get to Europe to find work.

There appears to have been some miscommunication between Rome and Brussels as to whether Italy actually asked for help.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi signed a bilateral deal with Ben Ali in 2009 under which the Tunisian leader pledged to keep emigration from his own country, as well as the rest of Africa, under control. The new government has promised to continue the policy, but Italy isn't taking any chances. A state of emergency has been declared, and Interior Minister Roberto Maroni from the anti-immigrant Northern League party has now called for a special EU summit to discuss the "epic emergency" resulting from the revolutions in North Africa.

Mauro Seminara/AFP/Getty Images

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