A group of 100 out of 219 migrants currently being held in the southern island of Lampedusa’s controversial detention centre was airlifted to Palermo, centre-left MP Khalid Chaouki said Tuesday.
Moroccan-born Chaouki said all the migrants currently being held in the centre should leave it by the end of Tuesday. “The transfers from Lampedusa have begun. Two flights have been chartered and we should finally manage to empty this centre today,” he wrote in a Facebook post.
Protests continued in other facilities. Nine migrants at an expulsion centre near Rome’s airport (Ponte Galeria) have also sewn their mouths shut and a total of 37 are on hunger strike, said the director of the centre, Vincenzo Lutrelli, Italian media reported.
“I hope that this being Christmas Eve there will be an end to the protest,” said Lutrelli, who has supported the initiative to draw attention to the long months in which migrants are held in prison-like conditions.
Prime Minister Enrico Letta on Monday said he would propose a partial reform of Italy’s tough immigration laws next month, along with a plan to overhaul the asylum system after a major influx of migrants.
Speaking at his year-end news conference, Letta said the government would take up the issue, and other aspects of Italy’s immigration and citizenship laws, when it charts its 2014 priorities in January.
The government had already pledged to improve conditions for welcoming refugees — and received some 30 million euros ($40 million) in EU pledges to do so — after more than 360 would-be refugees drowned off the southern island of Lampedusa in October.
The interior ministry estimates some 42,000 migrants have landed in Italy this year — triple the number from 2012 — usually on fishing boats from north Africa.
Most of the latest arrivals are from Eritrea, Somalia and Syria but there are also migrants from Afghanistan, Egypt, Tunisia and many parts of sub-Saharan Africa.
Up to 600 migrants — mostly from Eritrea and Syria — drowned in two shipwrecks within days off Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost territory.
Survivors of one of the shipwrecks are still being housed at the Lampedusa centre as they are witnesses in the criminal investigation into the shipwreck.
Out of the total of 200 migrants at the centre, 100 were flown out to the Italian mainland on Tuesday and another group was to be transferred later in the day.
Khalid Chaouki, a deputy from the centre-left Democratic Party, barricaded himself in the reception centre on Sunday and said he would not leave until all migrants were removed including seven survivors from a shipwreck off Lampedusa on 3 October in which over 360 people drowned.
The seven migrants are witnesses in a probe into the shipwreck and authorisation by a judge is needed before they can leave the Lampedusa centre, Chaouki said.
“This is a shameful place,” said Chaouki, who has been living at the centre since Sunday.
The facility is at the centre of an international storm after a video showing naked migrants being hosed down and sprayed with disinfectant in mixed company in a cold outdoor courtyard was broadcast on state TV last week.
The European Union and Italian prosecutors have opened an investigation and the EU has threatened to halt 30 million euros of aid to Italy over the video while Rome announced it would sack the cooperative that managed the Lampedusa centre.
Beginning this week, the Red Cross will start monitoring the activity of the Lampedusa centre, which can currently hold 250 people but often holds four or five times that number.
“This confirms the government’s commitment and its capacity to deal with this situation,” junior interior minister Filippo Bubbico told Adnkronos.
“The recent incidents that have sparked outrage must never detract from our system’s ability to guarantee protection and respect for human dignity.”
“But these incidents have highlighted the need to make corrections to our system.”
Migrants are supposed to be held for a maximum of 96 hours at the Lampedusa centre but people had been detained there for three months or more, according to Chaouki.
Under current Italian legislation, illegal immigrants can be held for up to 18 months in Italy’s holding centres.
In a year-end press conference in Rome on Monday, Italian premier Enrico Letta vowed the government would overhaul conditions in Italy’s overcrowded refugee holding centres following outrage over the Lampedusa video.
He also said that in 2014, he would take personal interest in seeing that children born in Italy to immigrants can obtain citizenship.
A total of 40,000 people risking the dangerous sea crossing from northern Africa this year – almost four times as many as last year – amid an unrelenting surge in migration in the Mediterranean from conflict-wracked countries, mainly in the Middle East and Africa but also South Asia.
Italy’s immigrant policy has been criticised in the past for allegedly not processing asylum requests properly, when boats were returned to Muammar Gheddafi’s Libya.
It is now under fire for taking too long to process migrants, as well as holding them in inadequate facilities.
Meanwhile, on 15th October, Italy has launched Operation Mare Nostrum to tackle the immigration emergency. It will be a ”military and humanitarian operation” to ”save human lives”, Defense Minister Mario Mauro said, but also a ”security” one, using the same hipocrite definition already used for the military interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya. Vague the duties and functions assigned to the armed forces; deliberately non-existent the rules of engagement, but very detailed the list of devices of death used to make the Mediterranean off limits.
The operation will include amphibious ships, unmanned drones and helicopters with infrared equipment with which Italy is attempting to deal with the latest waves of refugees and migrants arriving on its coasts and the risk of further tragic incidents. The minister noted that the ships would be used both to identify the mother ships used by the traffickers and that once spotted, the ships would be escorted to the nearest safe port, in compliance with international law. If there aren’t any migrants in need of medical assistance, he said, and if the ship is able to sail, it ”will be taken to the safest and nearest port, not necessarily Italian”.
Starting on Tuesday, more ships are operating in the area of the sea concerned than usual, including an amphibious unit tasked with coordinating all the others. Overall there are six navy ships, each with crews of between 80 to 250 men, and long-range helicopters.
Therefore in accordance with some jurists and anti-racist and human rights associations, the operation “Mare Nostrum” could repeat and expand the deportation of migrants and asylum seekers who were made a few years ago by the NATO countries to the Libyan authorities. In truth , after the launch of the “military – humanitarian” operation the Minister Angelino Alfano admitted that migrants stopped at sea by the Navy and Air Force units could be “landed” in some “safe harbors of the southern Mediterranean”.
As pointed out by prof. Fulvio Vassallo Palaeologus , a member of the Governing Council of ASGI (Association for Legal Studies on Immigration ), with the “landings” of migrants in ports “safe” but not Italian, “there is a risk that repeated rejections founded towards the countries that do not guarantee the protection of human rights, as happened in 2009, when the Italian Guardia di Finanza reported dozens of migrants in Libya”. A practice for which Italy was condemned in 2012 by the European Court of Human Rights.
According to the journalist Antonio Mazzeo, by the end of 2013 , air and naval patrols and diesel fuel will burn 20% of what was intended for the whole year in favor of relief and receiption of migrants.