By James Mackenzie
ROME (Reuters) - Italian authorities began clearing a migrant reception center on the island of Lampedusa on Tuesday after a row over harsh living conditions that prompted detainees to sew their lips together in protest.
The facility, originally intended to house up to 850 migrants for up to 48 hours before transfer to other centers, has been steadily transformed into a long-term refugee camp where detainees are housed in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions, prompting domestic and international criticism.
Deputy Interior Minister Filippo Bubbico told the daily Avvenire newspaper that 200 migrants would be transferred to other centers. Only 17 individuals, still caught up in registration processes that require their identities be established before they are moved, would remain, he said.
Khalid Chaouki, a deputy of the center-left Democratic Party who went to the island to demand action, announced on his Facebook page that transfers had started with two planes chartered to take migrants off the island.
"We should finally manage to free this center up by today," he wrote.
Lampedusa, midway between Sicily and Tunisia, has been the center of a chronic migration crisis which has worsened this year due to turbulence in the Middle East and Africa and the civil war in Syria.
Tens of thousands of desperate immigrants, most fleeing poverty and upheaval in search of a better life in Europe have braved the hazardous sea crossing from North Africa to Lampedusa. Thousands have died in the attempt, including hundreds who drowned when two overloaded boats sank in October.
The plight of the migrants left in Italy's reception centers, starved of resources in the economic crisis, was highlighted last week by a video which showed people in another center left standing naked in the cold while they were sprayed for scabies.
Last week nine North African migrants stitched their lips together to protest against the conditions they were forced to live in and to demand their release.
The UNHCR last week described conditions in the Lampedusa reception center as "unacceptable" and urged the Italian government to take urgent steps to remedy the situation which has persisted for many years.
Criticism of the center has been a severe embarrassment to Italy, which has generally prided itself on the efforts its coast guard and navy have made to rescue thousands of migrants at risk of drowning in flimsy vessels.
At the request of the interior ministry, the Italian Red Cross sent eight staff to Lampedusa on Tuesday to boost its presence on the island following calls for it to take over management of the immigration center.
According to Frontex, the European Union's border agency, more than 10,000 migrants arrived by sea in southern Italy last year, most from Eritrea, Tunisia and Somalia and the numbers have risen sharply this year as thousands have fled from the fighting in Syria. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said 7,800 migrants and asylum seekers arrived in Italy in the first half of the year alone.
The scandal at the migrant reception center has fed into a wider debate over immigration in Italy and Prime Minister Enrico Letta said this week that his government would move to overhaul a law against clandestine immigration blamed by some for encouraging abuses against migrants.
He said he also favored moves to make it easier for the children of immigrants to gain Italian citizenship.
(Reporting by James Mackenzie; editing by Patrick Graham)