Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Berlusconi: Migrants to leave Lampedusa in 48 hours

Berlusconi: Migrants to leave Lampedusa in 48 hours

Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi has promised that the island of Lampedusa will soon be free of migrants.

Mr Berlusconi had earlier described the immigrants as "poor wretches"

Thousands of people have arrived on the island south of Sicily since January, travelling from Tunisia and Libya.

Officials say sanitary conditions have become "desperate" and islanders have staged protests at the town hall.

On a visit to the island, Mr Berlusconi announced to a crowd that in "48 to 60 hours Lampedusa will be inhabited only by Lampedusans".

About 20,000 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean since the upheavals in North Africa and the Middle East began in January.


Some 6,000 migrants - more than the total population of the island - are now living there in makeshift camps.

There were no new arrivals on Tuesday night, Italian media reported, the first night with no new immigrants for some time.

On Wednesday morning, five ships arrived, sent by the Italian government to Lampedusa to take migrants to camps on the mainland. One of the ships was the naval vessel San Marco and the rest were civilian ferries, reports said. Another boat was expected later.

Mr Berlusconi's plane arrived on the island shortly after 1300 local time.

After meeting the regional governor and mayor of Lampedusa, he addressed a crowd of islanders outside the town hall, promising a series of measures including tax breaks and welfare benefits.

He also said there would be a plan to relaunch Lampedusa's tourist industry, which has been badly hit by the influx from North Africa.

The previous evening, he had described the immigrants arriving on Lampedusa as "poor wretches" fleeing a world without freedom and democracy.


Although most of the immigrants on the island are expected to be transferred to Sicily or camps on mainland Italy, negotiations are said to be under way to repatriate a number of people to Tunisia.

Most of the arrivals since January have sailed from Tunisia, but in recent days boats have come from Libya as well.

he BBC's Duncan Kennedy, in Rome, says that Italy, as the former colonial power in Libya, does not want to provoke the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, into sending thousands more migrants fleeing.

Early on in the crisis, Col Gaddafi threatened to do just that, if the EU backed military action.

Migrants who can prove they are refugees from a conflict are eligible for asylum in the EU under human rights conventions.

The European Commission says EU member states must address the surge in migration produced by the unrest in North Africa.

Some 20,000 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean since the upheavals began