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Berlusconi gaffs again

May 20, 2009

Silvio Berlusconi says it is more humane to send migrant boats back to Libya than let them enter Italy because of the unbearable conditions African refugees have to endure, which he compares to those in Nazi death camps.

boat with refugees
Conditions in Italy for illegal immigrants are worse than those back homeImage: dpa - Fotoreport

Italy's holding centers for immigrants are like "concentration camps," Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said in an apparent justification of his country's new practice of deporting to Libya migrants picked up at sea in international waters. He added that it was more humane to send migrant boats back to Libya than to let them enter Italy.

Berlusconi was speaking at a joint news conference on Tuesday with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, who said the priority should be to avoid humanitarian disasters at sea but stressed that the rights of asylum seekers should be respected.

Human rights groups, Catholic organisations and the Vatican have strongly criticised the deportations, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says the new Italian policy breaks international conventions on the rights of asylum seekers. The hundreds of people deported in recent weeks, the UNHCR says, included asylum seekers that Italy should accept.

But Berlusconi's conservative government says it will not be deterred from its deportation policy, arguing that it is part of an agreement with Tripoli to curb illegal immigration across the Mediterranean. In its crackdown against illegal immigrants, Rome plans to double the number of holding camps for migrants to 20 from 10 and has renamed them "Identification and Expulsion Centers." The lower house of parliament passed a bill that increases to six months the length of time immigrants can be held in these camps.

Aid groups have long criticized overcrowding and poor hygienic conditions at the camps for African refugees, especially on the tiny island of Lampedusa, where most of the immigrants from Africa are taken.

The European Union is meanwhile working on plans to assist Italy, Malta and other member states grappling with a surge of would-be immigrant arrivals. It hopes to present the proposals next month.


Editor: Nick Amies