Highs winds leave migrants stranded on Lampedusa

AP News
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Posted: Apr 02, 2011 2:20 PM
Highs winds leave migrants stranded on Lampedusa

High winds blocked ferries from taking migrants away Saturday from a tiny Italian island in the Mediterranean, frustrating the mostly Tunisian refugees who have been protesting about a lack of food, water and shelter.

About 3,500 Tunisians, many whom have been sleeping for days on the dockside, were waiting on Lampedusa, an island between Sicily and Tunisia, to be transferred to holding centers on the Italian mainland.

In early evening, "despite strong winds and adverse sea conditions," an Italian naval ship, the San Marco, was transferring 500 migrants to a holding center near Naples, the premier's office said. A ferry was anchored off shore, waiting for improved sea conditions to take on some 1,700 other migrants for transfer.

More than 15,000 20,000 North African immigrants have fled to Lampedusa since mid-January, when Tunisia overthrew its longtime dictator. The influx has overwhelmed the island of 5,000 residents and left thousands of immigrants with little services.

Premier Silvio Berlusconi visited the island Wednesday and promised, to the applause of residents, that by Friday all 6,000 remaining illegal migrants would be transferred. But that was before strong northwest winds kicked up the sea and made it too risky to transfer the migrants to ferries anchored offshore.

Anger has been mounting among the migrants, who have taken to shouting to demand showers, more food, water and guarantees they will be taken to the mainland soon.

"We are fed up," said Horchaive Hassen, a migrant from El Fash, in Tunisia. "The people of Lampedusa are fed up with us too, and we are fed up with being here, too."

On Saturday, fire broke out in an abandoned camper used by some migrants as a shelter, sending up a cloud of black smoke. Maj. Fabrizio Pisanelli said police detained a young man for questioning.

No one was injured and it was unclear whether a desire to draw attention to the migrants' plight might have been the motive, Pisanelli told The Associated Press in Rome.

The number of migrants has been increasing in recent weeks, he said, adding during March alone, 78 boats arrived at Lampedusa from Tunisia.

Two other boats came from Libya, bringing in a few hundred Somali and Eritrean migrants. Those Africans are likely eligible for asylum due to the violent conflicts in their homelands, but Italy has insisted that any Tunisian who doesn't have a job waiting in Italy will be deported.

One migrant at a holding center in southern Italy tried to set himself on fire but was stopped by police, the ANSA news agency reported from Manduria, near the port city of Taranto. Hours later, Sky TG 24 footage from Manduria showed migrants fleeing by the dozens, making a dash across fields.

Sky said that earlier in the day, at least 80 of the Tunisians made it to the train station in Taranto, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) away, where authorities picked them up to be returned to the Manduria tent camp.

Carabinieri Capt. Luigi Mazzotta said police reinforcements were being sent in to try to round up the fleeing migrants.

In the last few days, hundreds of Tunisians already transferred to detentions centers in Sicily or in the southwestern region of Puglia didn't wait for their deportation papers but fled over fences and headed to the French border.

To Italy's irritation, French police have sent the illegal Tunisian migrants back to Italy. French Prime Minister Francois Fillon has called for increased surveillance of the European Union's coastlines and said Italy deserves EU funding to deal with the flood of illegal migrants.

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Frances D'Emilio contributed to this report from Rome.