Italy resumed the forced expulsions of illegal immigrants from the remote Mediterranean island of Lampedusa on Wednesday, brushing aside criticism from human rights groups.
Thousands of African refugees reach Italian shores every year
Italian authorities had shortly stopped the controversial mass expulsions of immigrants to Libya after strong criticism from human rights groups who say the policy does not give immigrants a chance to apply for asylum.
A C-130 Hercules transport plane with 90 would-be immigrants aboard took off from Lampedusa's airport in the early afternoon, the AFP news agency reported.
A source who had seen the flight plan said the plane was bound for Libya, destination for more than 800 migrants deported from the island between Friday and Monday. The refugees were said to have been deported within 24 to 48 hours of their arrival on the small island of Lampedusa, closest to Africa.
Three other military transport planes were standing by to take a further 300 deportees back to Libya during the afternoon.
Sudanese immigrants appear from the German Cap Anamur aid ship as they dock in the Sicilian Harbour of Porto Empedocle, Italy in July.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees as well as the Italian opposition have described the large-scale expulsions as "inhumane." Italian television broadcast graphic images of hundreds of handcuffed refugees in Lampedusa herded by policeman into waiting military planes.
"The immigrants have been treated without the slightest respect for international conventions, " Pietro Folena, parliamentarian and member of Italy's largest opposition party, Democrats of the Left (DS) told AFP. "Italy's reputation has been besmirched by an offense against human rights," Folena added.
Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders also slammed the deportation, saying it was a "grave violation" of national and international asylum laws.
Italian stance on refugees
Laura Boldrini, UNHCR spokeswoman said that the speeded up deportation process of refugees from Lampedusa was shrouded in secrecy.
Boldrini said the Italian authorities made no effort to differentiate between asylum-seeking candidates and economic refugees. She also pointed out that the authorities didn't even possess equipment for carrying out identification measures such as fingerprints or photographs of the refugees.
Italian Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu was quoted as saying, "the poor devils (the refugees) must know that they will get humanitarian help, but then will be sent back immediately to the place where they came from."
Exhausted African refugees lie in a boot near the Italian island of Lampedusa in Oct. 2003.
But, experts point out that Italy's hard-line stance against the refugees is problematic because the country still doesn't have an asylum law. That means there are no hard and fast time limits within which authorities are required to check whether refugees qualify as asylum-seekers.
Human rights group also say that though Italy has signed the Geneva Refugee Convention, Libya, which serves as a transit and starting point for hundreds of refugees from Africa, hasn't. Thus, Italy sends rejected refugees after a perfunctory check, back to a country where the basic standards of refugee rights aren't guaranteed, experts complain.
In Brussels on Tuesday, Italy's nominee to become the European Union's Justice and home affairs commissioner, Rocco Buttiglione said he was not aware of any violations. "If this information is wrong, I'll be the first one to denounce the situation," Buttiglione told the Apcom news agency.
UNHCR waiting for access to refugees
Meanwhile on Wednesday, the UNHCR complained that Italian authorities have not yet given the UN agency clearance to the around 500 refugees who are still believed to be in Lampedusa.
"We are concerned because among the people who have been sent back, there were some who would perhaps have had the right to lodge a request for political asylum," Juergen Humburg of the UNHCR told AFP.
Over the last two days alone, over a thousand would-be immigrants are said to have landed on Italy's southern coast. One of the boats carrying the immigrants capsized off the coast of Tunisia on Monday, killing at least 22 people.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi will have a chance to discuss the issue with Libyan officials during a short visit on Thursday. Berlusconi is going to Libya for the opening of a gas pipeline linking the North African country to Sicily.
Rome has identified Libya as being the main launchpad for
crossings by African migrants trying to reach Europe via Italy, and the government here has been pressing Tripoli for more than a year to do more to stem the tide of would-be immigrants.
Italy has promised Libya equipment and training for land and sea patrols to help them cope, once the European Union lifts a long-standing embargo, imposed for its support of international terrorism.
Spain opposes transit camps
Even as the refugee crisis continued in Lampedusa, Spain on Tuesday said it opposed the idea of would-be immigrants to Europe being accommodated in mass transit camps in north Africa.
"Spain is not favorable to this kind of initiative," Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said Tuesday. Moratinos said the Spanish government does not believe that setting up camps in Libya and neighboring north African states such as Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria can "improve the flow" of illegal immigrants. He added that human rights and effective international cooperation on the issue were his prime concerns.
The idea of setting up transit camps in north Africa to process asylum applications outside the European Union is favored by Germany and Italy. The plan is to be discussed at a meeting of EU interior ministers later this month.