Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has vowed that all the illegal immigrants who have arrived on the island of Lampedusa from North Africa will soon be deported.
Visiting the island for the first time, Berlusconi told local people and officials that in 48 to 60 hours Lampedusa will be inhabited only by Lampedusans.
The Prime Minister had previously described the African migrants as “poor wretches.”
Berlusconi also promised a series of measures including tax breaks and welfare benefits for Lampedusans and that he would take steps to restore the island’s crucial tourist industry.
At least 20,000 people – mostly young men fleeing the violence and turmoil Tunisia and Libya – have reached Lampedusa, a tiny island which is south of Sicily, but closer to the African continent than Europe, since mid-January.
At the moment about 6,000 migrants – more than the normal population of the island – are in makeshift camps.
Local officials in Lampedusa say they are swamped and cannot handle the large population of migrants, citing inadequate facilities and “desperate “sanitary conditions. Residents of the islands have also expressed their anger at the presence of so many migrants.
It's not possible in the long term to leave 5,000 inhabitants living alongside 6,000 immigrants in such conditions, warned Laura Boldrini from the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR, according to press reports.
The situation is very tense. We cannot lose any more time”.
On Wednesday morning, five Italian ships, including one naval vessel, arrived to take migrants to camps on Italy’s mainland.
Reportedly, Italian officials are negotiating to return many of the migrants to Tunisia.
However, if migrants can prove they are refugees from conflicts are eligible for asylum in European Union (EU) nations under human rights laws.
Also, the Italian government is reportedly fearful that if it provoked Gaddafi he would send thousands of more migrants to Italy (Libya’s former colonial ruler). Gaddafi had in fact threatened to do just that at the beginning of the crisis in the event the European Union (EU) took action against him.
Meanwhile, Italy is desperately seeking held from other EU nations, particularly France to help it with processing and housing the unwanted migrants.
These are not just economic migrants and we continue to ask Europe to take action, Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told SKY TG24, warnings that promises for very limited European funds were not enough.
A spokesman for the EU said we have made around 18 million euros [$25 million] available to Italy in 2010-2011 for repatriations, on top of 25 million euros allocated to all member states for emergency measures.”