LAMPEDUSA, Italy – Twenty four-year old Lassad, one of the thousands of Tunisians sleeping rough at the port on the tiny island of Lampedusa south of Sicily, is desperate to get off the overcrowded island and start a new life.

"Help us! We cannot bear waiting any longer without knowing what's going to happen to us," the young man, his face weather-beaten, told AFP in French.

"We just want to work. Leaving here is the only thing we think about," he said, gesturing to his 20-year old brother Ali, who nodded in agreement.

The quay-side around them, usually the arrival point for tourist ferries, is chaotic, with thousands of young male Tunisians crammed into areas marked out with ropes or dustbins.

The latest arrivals are penned in at the boat terminal while those who have been here the longest inch their way forward to the end of the quay in the hope of being transferred soon to a reception centre in Sicily or in mainland Italy.

"There are no beds and no blankets, despite the cold at night, we are treated like dogs. No, dogs are treated better than us," Lassad said, his eyes blazing with anger.

With only three chemical lavatories for thousands of immigrants, forced to urinate and defecate in the open on a small hill next to the quay, the smell is appalling.

Many have had little to eat and been unable to wash since they made the hazardous journey by boat across the Strait of Sicily, but are still hopeful of creating better lives for themselves in Europe.

"In our country there are many things that are wrong. There is no work and the police are as bad as they were under Ben Ali," Lassad said.

"We come over to find work and freedom. But above all to find work," he said, adding: "I'd like to go to France."

On another part of the quay, 29-year old Ali is close to tears.

"I have family in Tunis, but no-one knows I have arrived. Yesterday people died and I cannot let my family know I'm alright," he said.

"When we arrived, we walked a kilometre through the water. My mobile phone is wrecked, completely ruined by the sea water."

The uncertainty over their future is getting to Abdel as well, who frustratedly puffs away on his cigarette.

"We don't know anything. We don't know where they are going to take us, to Sicily, Palermo or Rome. But one thing is sure, we are not going back to Tunisia. It's impossible to live there, I just want to work," he said.

As time goes by, the relationship between the 5,000 locals and 6,000 immigrants grows increasingly tense.

"These people are living in an inhumane fashion," Francesco Solina, spokesman for the youth movement in Lampedusa, told AFP.

"Tension is mounting on both sides."

He remains sceptical in the face of promises made by the Italian government to send six boats, with a capacity of 10,000 people, to transport the immigrants off the island.

"Is it true or false? I hope that it's true, I hope that the government hasn't abandoned us."

In a sign of progress, police officials on Thursday began the bureaucratic process necessary to move immigrants to reception centres, including registering their finger prints and taking their photos.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said he would be visiting the island on Wednesday.

The premier intends "to check on the situation in person... and help come up with the right solution," his spokesman said.