22 March 2011 – The United Nations refugee agency today called on Italian authorities to take urgent action to tackle overcrowding on the remote island of Lampedusa, where the humanitarian situation for the 5,000 mostly Tunisian migrants there is deteriorating.
“We urge the Italian authorities to increase the number of transfers from the island to the mainland to relieve congestion on Lampedusa, and to allow the reception centre there to function normally,” Adrian Edwards, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told a news conference in Geneva.
The local reception centre, which was designed to accommodate 850 people, currently hosts some 2,000, according to UNHCR. Another 3,000 people are forced to sleep in the rough close to the centre and on the docks. Despite the efforts of local humanitarian workers, many people are not able to find shelter from rain and cold weather. Hygiene conditions are “dire,” Mr. Edwards reported.
In addition, with the ratio of migrants to local population now one-to-one, the congestion is raising tensions within the local population and among the migrants.
“The local population is experiencing the present situation with understandable nervousness,” said Mr. Edwards. More than 15,000 Tunisian migrants have arrived on Lampedusa since mid-January. Around two-thirds have been transferred to other locations in Italy.
UNHCR said that the vast majority of migrants on Lampedusa have left Tunisia seeking job opportunities, with only a few expressing the intention to seek international protection.
The agency urged European Union (EU) solidarity with Italy as it faces this current challenge, especially given the events taking place across North Africa, where public protests have toppled regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and led to fierce fighting in Libya.
“It is crucial that the situation on Lampedusa not impede Italian preparedness for arrivals of persons fleeing the situation in Libya, as such persons would be likely to have international protection needs,” said Mr. Edwards.
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