Illegal immigrants from North Africa arrive on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa
Illegal immigrants from North Africa arrive on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa Reuters

While the European Union (EU) nervously monitors the ever-deteriorating situation in Libya, they are also worried about one possible outcome of the unrest there – an acceleration of illegal immigration into Europe from North Africa.

Already, Italian officials in the tiny island of Lampedusa (which is directly south of Sicily and east of Tunisia), is already struggling with the arrival of some 5000 Arab migrants. Most of these migrants are Tunisians and they came by boat.

EU foreign ministers, presently engaged in crisis talks in Belgium, have sent immigration experts and naval support Lampedusa.

EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem said experts will assist in debriefing and interviewing migrants. Special attention is given to identifying those who may be in need of international protection. [We] will also give aerial and naval support for border surveillance.”

Complicating matters is that last week Moammar Gaddafi warned the EU that it would cease to co-operate on issues related to illegal migration to Europe if the EU supported anti-government protesters in Libya.

European officials were outraged by the threat.

This is totally out of order. The European Union must not let itself be blackmailed, German Europe minister Werner Hoyer told reporters .

France's Europe minister, Laurent Wauquieze, said: There should not be any state blackmail ... And it is clear that Europe will not stop expressing itself.

Libya and Italy (which have strong economic ties) have together stopped boats carrying illegal immigrants across the Mediterranean.

Should Libya stop this practice, there are fears of new waves of North African immigrants pouring into Europe.

Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini expressed alarm of the potential threat of an Islamic Arab Emirate at the borders of Europe. He added those who spoke of hundreds of thousands, were not exaggerating. We have already seen what happened in Tunisia.

Similarly, Malta's Foreign Minister Tonio Borg said he is concerned about the implications the instability [in North Africa] could have on migratory flows, and ultimately not only in Malta and Italy, but all over Europe.

The Council [of Ministers] stresses the importance of strengthened co-operations with Mediterranean countries to address illegal immigration, read the final statement by European foreign ministers.