UN warns Italy is facing immigration emergency

By Nicole Winfield

Associated Press

Published: Monday, March 21 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

An Italian financial police helicopter flies over the island of Lampedusa, Italy, as clothes hang from a fence, Monday, March 21, 2011. Italy warned Monday that it was facing a refugee and humanitarian emergency, with some 15,000 Tunisians having arrived in recent weeks and fears that the start of U.S. and European air strikes on Libya could unleash even more migrants. Italy has demanded Europe as a whole share the burden of coping with the immigration flows, saying it shouldn't be expected to cope with alone. As it is, the number of Tunisians on the tiny island of Lampedusa, 4,800 as of Monday, was almost the size of the 5,000-strong population itself. Lampedusa's residents are getting increasingly angry over the government's failure to help ease their burden. They have refused plans to set up a tent camp on the island, saying the migrants should be taken elsewhere.

Giuseppe Giglia, Associated Press

ROME — The U.N. warned Monday that Italy is facing a humanitarian and sanitation crisis on the tiny island of Lampedusa following the arrival of some 15,000 Tunisian boat people amid fears more migrants will flee there following coalition airstrikes on Libya.

Lampedusa is currently housing some 4,800 Tunisians, almost doubling the island's population of 5,000 and putting a severe strain on its immigrant holding center which has a capacity of just 850.

Italy had been ferrying and airlifting the migrants off the island to be processed at holding centers elsewhere. But those centers are now full, leading to a backlog in Lampedusa — the primary point of arrival for North Africans due to its close proximity to Africa.

The U.N. refugee agency warned in a statement that some 3,000 of the migrants have been forced to sleep outdoors, "either next to the center or on the docks, without any protection from the rain in increasingly critical hygienic conditions."

Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said measures would be taken in coming days to stem the flow and ease the burden on Lampedusa, including a visit to Tunis Wednesday to press for a resumption of the immigration treaty agreements and border controls that evaporated after the country's popular revolt in January.

He said 25 Tunisians had arrived in Lampedusa in 2010 — "Now, 14,000 have arrived in two months." Maroni added that an Italian navy ship would be sent to the island to transport migrants to holding centers elsewhere in Italy, and he would be meeting with regional officials to find additional centers.

Maroni also announced compensation measures for the island, whose economy is driven by tourism, as fears mount among residents that the crisis will ruin the approaching high tourist season.

Maroni told a news conference Monday that some 200 Libyans from the country's east had arrived overnight in Catania, Sicily, marking the first major influx from Libya to Italy since the revolt against Moammar Gadhafi began over a month ago.

But it appeared his information was outdated. Officials from Catania's port, police, carabinieri and financial police said the migrants were Egyptians, not Libyans — news reports indicating they claimed to be Libyans to obtain refugee status.

Italy has been sending back the vast majority of the 14,918 Tunisians and Egyptians who have arrived at its borders in recent weeks following popular revolts in their home countries, saying they don't qualify for asylum or refugee status as there are no wars or humanitarian crises in their countries.

The Interior Organization for Migration said it had been informed by Egyptian government sources that the 200 migrants were likely Egyptians, not Libyans, and would as a result be deported, spokeswoman Jemini Pandya said.

Italy has demanded Europe help with the flow of immigrants, saying it shouldn't be expected to cope alone. It has argued that its active cooperation in the Libya military campaign should compel European partners to share the burden and take some of the immigrants off its hands.

"We want to use this authority that our participation in this operation gives us to ask all the states to share with us the cost of the immigrant flows," Maroni said.

Italy has offered the coalition the use of seven military bases for its aircraft. It also sent six Tornado fighter jets on missions Sunday night.

The anti-immigrant Northern League, a key government partner which has been at the forefront of demands that the EU take in some of the Lampedusa immigrants, submitted a proposal to parliament Monday demanding the European Union take responsibility.

Last week, EU commission president Jose Manuel Barroso met with Premier Silvio Berlusconi and said Italy could count on its "political and financial solidarity."

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