(A thousand more refugees arrived in Italy tonight)
The Italian cabinet on Saturday "proclaimed a state of humanitarian emergency following the influx of the large number of citizens from North Africa," the government said in a statement.
Rome said the decision would enable authorities "to take immediate action needed to control this phenomenon and assist citizens who have fled from North Africa."
Local authorities on the island of Lampedusa on Saturday said that nearly 4,000 people had landed there since Wednesday. The majority are Tunisians seeking asylum in the wake of the political unrest that unseated President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.