By Steve Scherer
ROME (Reuters) - Nine illegal immigrants detained in Italy have stitched their lips together with thread from their bedsheets in a protest to demand their release.
The protest, which started at a center near Rome on Saturday, came days after video emerged of immigrants at another camp standing naked in the cold to be sprayed for scabies. It drew new calls for the closure of detention centers and for changes to immigration laws.
Using a needle improvised from a cigarette lighter, four Tunisians each made a single stitch to join their lips in the middle, Filiberto Zaratti, a lawmaker who visited the protesters, told Reuters.
Five Moroccans later imitated the gesture, according to the centre's manager, speaking on Italian television. The protesters asked to be let out of the center, the manager said.
Italy has borne the brunt of a wave of immigration to the European Union, with more than 40,000 people risking the dangerous sea crossing from northern Africa this year - almost four times as many as last year.
Illegal immigrants can be held for up to 18 months while they await deportation.
Despite stitching their lips, the protesters could still eat and drink and had been examined by a doctor, Zaratti said, describing their living conditions as shameful.
"That people were forced to such an extreme form of protest reflects their desperation," the lawmaker for the opposition Left Ecology and Freedom party said. "These structures should be closed immediately."
Last week, video emerged of naked detainees being sprayed on the island of Lampedusa, where hundreds of migrants died in a shipwreck in October.
On Sunday, the spokesman on immigration issues for the main party in the ruling coalition, the center-left Democratic Party, said the government would pass less restrictive immigration laws next year. Italy's biggest union and Rome's mayor have also called for the closure of detention centers.
But relaxing immigration laws could also set up a fight within Italy's coalition.
The small New Center Right party that defected from Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia to support the government last month has repeatedly said it opposes loosening the immigration rules.
(Editing by Matthew Tostevin)