25 Jan 2009

Refugees break out of Italian camp

8:32 am on 25 January 2009

Hundreds of asylum-seekers and would-be immigrants have burst out of a detention centre on the Italian island of Lampedusa, a day after the United Nations criticised conditions at the camp.

Police said the group forced open the gates of the camp and marched peacefully to the town centre to protest against their detention.

They were joined by a few hundred locals who also want the inmates transferred to bigger camps elsewhere in Italy.

The interior ministry said there had been "no escape of illegal immigrants" because it was a camp for assistance rather than expulsion, "so there is no obligation to stay there". Many were already returning to the camp, it said in a statement.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees made a rare criticism of Italy on Friday, expressing concern about the camp where Italy holds people picked up or rescued trying to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa in small boats.

The UNHCR said the camp is only built for 850 people but now has up to 2,000 crammed in, many sleeping under plastic sheets. The Italian government says there are currently 1,300 residents.

Originally a temporary stop for people waiting for transfer to other centres in Italy, the camp's role has changed this year with tough new immigration rules meaning all those rescued are kept in Lampedusa until being granted asylum or expelled.

Many locals are opposed to Italian government plans to build a new camp to identify and expel illegal immigrants, which they say would turn the island into a "sort of prison" rather than a humanitarian centre for refugees rescued from the sea.