ROME (AP) — Premier Enrico Letta pledged Monday to overhaul conditions in Italy's overcrowded refugee holding centers following outrage over a video of migrants being hosed down naked in the cold to disinfect them.
Speaking at his year-end news conference, Letta said the government would take up the issue, and other aspects of Italy's immigration and citizenship laws, when it charts its 2014 priorities in January.
The government had already pledged to improve conditions for welcoming refugees — and received some 30 million euros ($40 million) in EU pledges to do so — after more than 360 would-be refugees drowned off the southern island of Lampedusa in October. The tragedy cast worldwide attention on the plight of migrants trying to reach Europe and the often-times substandard conditions they find when they reach land.
But the government was put on the defensive anew after Italian state television last week broadcast a video taken by a Lampedusa migrant of about a dozen men at the Lampedusa holding center being forced to strip in the cold to be hosed down and disinfected for scabies.
Refugee advocates denounced the practice as violating the rights of the migrants and unworthy of a civilized country. Starting this week, the Red Cross will begin monitoring the activity of the Lampedusa center, which is designed to hold 250 people but often has four or five times that many, according to Francesco Rocca, president of the Italian Red Cross.
Lampedusa, a tiny strip of rock closer to Africa than the Italian mainland, is the destination of choice for smuggling operations from northern Africa and has become ground zero in the increasingly volatile debate over how Italy — and Europe as a whole — deals with waves of people fleeing war and oppression from Somalia to Syria.
Letta noted that 2013 saw a three-fold increase in the number of migrants arriving on its shores over 2012 arrivals, and that its holding centers are currently overflowing with some 16,000 people. That pressure, he said, is compelling the government "to immediately get to work on a comprehensive revision of the standards of the (centers) and the way we receive migrants in its entirety."
Until then, the protests continue.
At a Rome detention center over the weekend, a handful of migrants sewed their mouths shut with thread to protest their conditions, while several migrants in Lampedusa are on a hunger strike to demand that they be transferred to longer-term centers on the mainland. A judge has prevented them from leaving because they are witnesses to the Oct. 3 capsizing.
One politician from the center-left Democratic Party, Khalid Chaouki, has made a solidarity protest, camping out in the Lampedusa center to draw attention to the conditions. In an article penned Monday for La Stampa newspaper, Chaouki said Lampedusa is an emergency first-aid center where migrants are supposed to spend no more than 96 hours before being transferred to the mainland to be screened for asylum.
"If law enforcement doesn't have a clear response for this, how can we respond to the migrants who after months of exhausting travel they find themselves in these conditions where their rights are suspended?" he wrote.
Letta said the overhaul of the centers would take into account the rights of migrants as well as Italians' need for security. He also said that in 2014, he would take personal interest in seeing that children born in Italy to immigrants can obtain citizenship.
Currently, such children can only apply for citizenship when they turn 18, and even then bureaucratic problems often derail the process. The push to change Italy's citizenship law from one based on bloodlines to birthplace has been championed by Italy's first black cabinet minister, the Congolese-born Cecile Kyenge.
Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield