- immigration - Italy - refugees
AFP - About half the residents of Italy's southernmost island of Lampedusa, the main arrival point in Europe for migrants from Africa, protested Friday against plans to set up a new immigration centre there.
More than 3,000 people gathered at the island's existing detention centre to voice their opposition to another. The government says the new centre will help identify illegal immigrants and speed up their deportation.
The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees expressed "mounting concern" over conditions at the existing centre, where 1,677 would-be immigrants crowd a site meant to house half that number.
"The centre has a capacity for only 850 people and hence cannot accommodate such high numbers," the UNHCR said in a statement.
"The result is that hundreds of people are now sleeping outdoors under plastic sheeting and adequate reception standards cannot be maintained."
Interior Minister Roberto Maroni announced at the end of December that immigrants would be sent straight back to their country of origin instead of being transferred to other centres on the Italian mainland.
On Friday, he said the new Centre for Identification and Expulsion would allow immigrants to be directly expelled more easily from Lampedusa back to their country of origin.
"This coming week, I will visit several countries with which we have cooperation agreements for repatriation with the aim of firming up these pacts and to authorise speedier expulsion procedures," he told a press conference.
"The aim is to have the plan for direct repatriations from Lampedusa up and running within the next few weeks," he said. "Since January 1, we have directly sent back 150 people from Lampedusa," mostly Egyptians and Nigerians, he said.
On Friday alone, 250 migrants were repatriated on three flights, said the centre's director Cono Galipo quoted by the ANSA news agency.
Italy's interior ministry estimates that 31,700 immigrants landed on Lampedusa in 2008, a 75 percent increase on the previous year.
According to UNHCR, preliminary figures for 2008 showed that about 75 percent of those who arrived in Italy by sea last year applied for asylum.
Around 50 percent of those who applied were granted refugee status or other protection on other humanitarian grounds, it added.