More than 1,000 asylum-seekers and would-be immigrants broke out of an Italian refugee center on the island of Lampedusa on Saturday, Jan 24. Conditions at the center have been criticized by the UN and Germany.
The UN refugee agency described the conditions at the Lampedusa camp as "difficult"
Police said the group forced open the gates of the camp and then peacefully marched to the center of town, where they began protesting their detention.
The police were far outnumbered by the migrants, who marched through the streets toward city hall showing "Freedom, help us!"
Several hundred local residents joined in the demonstration, calling for the inmates to be transferred to bigger camps in other locations in Italy. Locals have protested Italy's plans to build another center on the island to identify and expel illegal immigrants.
They said it would turn Italy's southernmost island into a "sort of prison" rather than a humanitarian center for refugees rescued at sea.
Immigrants at the Lampedusa center
The refugee center is overflowing with nearly 2,000 people, who were brought there by Italian authorities after being picked up or rescued trying to cross the Mediterranean from Africa to Europe.
The camp was originally intended to be a temporary stop until those held would be transferred to other centers. But under Italy's strict new immigration rules, people are held at Lempedusa until granted asylum or expelled.
Conditions at the camp have deteriorated due to the overflow, with hundreds of people forced to sleep outdoors under tents. The UN refugee agency UNHCR, in a rare criticism of Italy, called it a "difficult humanitarian situation." The UN body said the camp was designed to accommodate 850 people.
Italy's interior ministry estimates that 31,700 immigrants landed on Lampedusa in 2008, a 75 percent increase on the previous year.
According to UNHCR, preliminary figures for 2008 showed that about 75 percent of those who arrived in Italy by sea last year applied for asylum.
Making the dangerous journey toward Europe
Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, a German legislator, assailed Italy on Friday over the "terrible" accommodation for refugees at a camp on the island.
Speaking on the RBB Radioeins radio station, the European parliament member said more than 1,800 people were being housed in a camp with only about 800 beds.
"The situation in this utterly overcrowded camp is terrible," he said. He said he could not understand why the Italian government was not providing additional sites to house them.
"I think it's their expression of a stubborn, ideologically blinkered, conservative immigration policy," said Lambsdorff, 42, who is a member of the Free Democratic Party.
He said the treatment fell short of the European Union's minimum standards about how to treat immigrants.