Italian fishermen block port to protest migrants

By Massimo Pagliaroli

Associated Press

Published: Monday, March 28 2011 1:31 p.m. MDT

Migrants disembark from the Italian Navy vessel San Marco as they arrive at the harbour in Taranto , southern Italy, Sunday, March 27, 2011. Hundreds of African migrants are arriving on Italian shores aboard boats from Libya, overwhelming a tiny island already struggling to host thousands who fled Tunisia. Authorities are using Italian naval vessels to ferry illegal migrants who landed on Lampedusa island to detention centers on the mainland. Early Sunday, one boat filled with Etrirean, Ethiopean and Somali migrants was diverted to Linosa, an even tinier island off Sicily because Lampedusa couldn't handle any more.

Lapresse) ITALY OUT, Associated Press

LAMPEDUSA, Italy — Exasperated Italian fishermen towed empty boats seized from illegal immigrants across the entrance of Lampedusa's harbor on Monday to try to prevent any other vessels carrying North Africans from reaching the tiny island in the Mediterranean Sea.

Other islanders overturned garbage bins to protest the relentless arrival of illegal immigrants, including many now coming from Libyan shores.

"Enough, we're full," read a slogan scrawled on a white sheet and carried by two protesters.

More than 3,000 new migrants have arrived in the last three days alone on the island of 5,000 residents, which lives off tourism and fishing. With the shelters on the island full, the migrants, many of them Tunisian men who fled the unrest in their homeland, have taken to sleeping on the docks or in makeshift tent camps in fields.

The island has been flooded with more than 15,000 migrants since mid-January, when Tunisians overthrew their longtime strongman, but hundreds have been transferred to centers in other parts of Italy. The island is 60 miles (100 kilometers) east of the Tunisian coast, closer to African than the Italian mainland.

As local women cheered, the fishermen on Monday pulled the migrants' seized boats across the harbor. The migrants simply watched from land, their laundry flapping from improvised clotheslines.

The migrants' boats — often open-topped wooden fishing vessels purchased from smugglers — are spotted far offshore by Italian coast guard air and sea patrols, whose motorboats then escort the migrants to the island. Monday's blockade was a mostly symbolic act, since few migrants' boats have entered the small port or docked by themselves at Lampedusa.

Angry islanders knocked over garbage bins along the roads Monday and several women chained themselves together, shouting that the migrants should no longer be brought to shore.

"We are here to protest because the government has abandoned us," said islander Cinzia Licciardi, 30.

Another resident, Concetta Billeci, said islanders have sent their children to relatives who live elsewhere due to the stench of the garbage left by the vast numbers of migrants in the fields.

"The air is unbreathable here," said Billeci, 34.

Tunisians who set sail from their homeland but who aren't eligible for political asylum will receive deportation orders. But many of the Tunisians have simply climbed over fences at the centers and run away in hope of making it to their destination, which most say is Tunisia's former colonial master, France.

Asylum is frequently granted to Somalis, Eritreans and Ethiopians, who arrived by the hundreds over the weekend aboard the first boats to set sail from Libya since the uprising against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi began in mid-February.

With Lampedusa overwhelmed, some migrant boats are being diverted to Linosa, another tiny Italian island in the archipelago.

Italy has promised to increase in the coming days the number of naval transport ships assigned to transfer the migrants from Lampedusa to detention centers elsewhere.

Boatloads of migrants setting out from Libya's coastline also have reached another small Mediterranean island, Malta. On Monday, two boats arrived, one with about 300 people aboard, and the other with some 200 people. The migrants told authorities they came from either Somalia or Eritrea, which means they could likely stay on Malta, a European Union country, for months while asylum requests are examined.

Women and children among the asylum seekers are usually kept in homes run by Roman Catholic nuns, while the men are kept in a tent-city-like detention center.

George Cini contributed to this report from Malta.

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