Rome: Italy shipped more than 2,000 migrants to detention camps on its mainland on Thursday, relieving pressure on a tiny island off Sicily which has been overwhelmed by a relentless stream of boats full of illegal arrivals from North African shores.
Lampedusa — a clear-watered fishing and tourist island with a population of 5,000 — ran out of shelters days ago when migrant numbers peaked at over 6,000, forcing many of the Tunisians and others to sleep in the open air on docksides and in fields.
Human rights advocacy group Amnesty International has added its voice to local concern, saying that migrants had been left to fend for themselves in "appalling" conditions. On Thursday, soldiers, ordered in by the national government, joined local sanitation workers in ridding the island of piles of rubbish left by the departing migrants.
There was also concern about the minors among the migrants, which a Save the Children representative on the island, Filippo Ungaro, estimated number about 350. Under international conventions, the minors cannot be deported and should be put into temporary foster homes while asylum paperwork is processed, Ungaro told Sky TG24 TV.
The government, at a Cabinet meeting on Thursday, authorised funding for unaccompanied minors so they could be placed in temporary homes.
Premier Silvio Berlusconi, pressured by anti-immigrant coalition allies, promised while touring the island on Wednesday that all of the migrants would be either deported to Tunisia or transferred to mainland detention centres within two to three days. Most of the arrivals are Tunisians who fled unrest in their homeland in the hope of finding family members or jobs in France.
Berlusconi said on Thursday that Tunisia should have stopped the boats from setting out from its waters and planned to travel on Monday to Tunis to raise the issue in person, his office said.
Foreign Minister Franco Frattini has voiced frustration that other European Union countries have done little or nothing to help relieve Rome of the migrant burden.
The illegal arrivals "must be deported either to Tunisia or be spread around to other European countries," Frattini told an Italian TV news show on Thursday. "It`s stunning that there is no solidarity from any of the European countries, including those which many Tunisians would want to reach... France."
Italian TV has added fuel to his argument by running video footage of Tunisians being sent back from Italy`s border with France, near the Italian seaside town of Ventimiglia. On Thursday, local workers set up a temporary 100-bed shelter with toilets and showers in an empty barracks in Ventimiglia for Tunisians flocking to the town.
Eighty Tunisians crossed the border into France on Tuesday night and were caught by the French police, said Geraldine Soulier, spokeswoman for the regional administration on the French Riviera.
The regional administration says some 600 Tunisians had been caught so far this month at the border. Their whereabouts weren`t clear.
Lampedusa Mayor Bernardino De Rubeis said that before dawn 690 migrants were shipped on a chartered ferry to the region of Puglia, with another 600 transported hours later. A tent camp for some 4,000 migrants was being hastily set up in the town of Manduria in the southeastern Italian region. Other ships, including a naval vessel, were anchored off Lampedusa`s ports, waiting for the seas to calm to pick up more migrants for transfer to the mainland.
While the Italian government has called on towns throughout the country to accept some of the migrants while they are processed for deportation or asylum, some southern politicians have protested that they are bearing the brunt of the arrivals, while they charge towns in the north — where anti-immigrant Berlusconi ally the Northern League is based — have done little to help.
Italian news reports said both the mayor of Manduria and an undersecretary in Berlusconi`s Cabinet had handed in their resignation to protest what they said was an unfair number of migrants being sent to the south.
Migrants have also protested their treatment and the conditions they`ve been forced to endure as they await relocation. Dozens of Tunisians marched through the streets of Lampedusa on Thursday demanding they be taken off the island.
"Ten days with no shower," said Faycel Mannai, 27, from Krib Siliana, Tunisia. "I`m not eating good. Sleeping outside, sleeping in the street. It`s cold and everybody is very tired here."
Italian news agency ANSA reported that a group of Eritreans, who were rescued in their boat a few days earlier and escorted to another tiny island, Linosa, had barricaded themselves in their detention centre on Sicily following their transfer. More than 250 people from Eritrea, Somalia and Ethiopia had originally set sail from Libya on the boat.
Some 2,000 refugees, most of them from Somalia or Eritrea, have arrived so far on boats that set out from Libya, and officials were looking for places to house them, Interior Minister Roberto Maroni told reporters.
Prior to the outbreak of a revolt against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, an Italian-Libyan treaty saw Tripoli cracking down on smugglers` boats transporting migrants from its shores to Italy in exchange for Italian aid. But chaos has effectively ended any enforcement of the deal, and Berlusconi`s government has warned that tens of thousands of migrants, many of them from the Horn of Africa or elsewhere on the continent, may soon be on their way.