30 March 2011
Last updated at 02:30 ET
Some 20,000 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean since the upheavals began
Italy’s prime minister is to visit the island of Lampedusa as naval ships prepare to move thousands of migrants who have recently arrived there.
Hundreds, mainly from Libya and Tunisia, have been arriving on the shores of the tiny island south of Sicily each night.
Its residents have protested, occupying the town hall and threatening to cut off supplies if ships do not arrive.
Officials say sanitary conditions on the island are now “desperate”.
About 20,000 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean since the upheavals in North Africa and the Middle East began in January.
Some 7,000 migrants – more than the total population of the island – are now living there in makeshift camps.
The Italian government is sending six naval vessels to Lampedusa to take migrants to camps on the mainland.
Silvio Berlusconi has convened an emergency meeting on Thursday to address the crisis, a day after his visit.
The BBC’s Duncan Kennedy, in Rome, says that Italy, as the former colonial power in Libya, does not want to provoke the Libyan leader, Colonel Gaddafi, into sending thousands more migrants fleeing.
Early on in the crisis, Col Gaddafi threatened to do just that, if the EU backed military action.
Migrants who can prove they are refugees from a conflict are eligible for asylum in the EU under human rights conventions.
The European Commission says EU member states must address the surge in migration produced by the unrest in North Africa.