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UN joins condemnation of Lampedusa migrant treatment

'Deeply shocked by degrading images'

20 December, 17:40
UN joins condemnation of Lampedusa migrant treatment (By Christopher Livesay) (ANSA)- Geneva, December 20 - The UN High Commission for Human Rights on Friday called on the Italian government to promptly punish those responsible for what it called the "degrading" treatment of refugees in its Lampedusa island migrant-reception center.

"We are deeply shocked by the footage showing asylum seekers being treated in degrading ways. We exhort the Italian government to immediately investigate the incident so that those responsible may answer for their actions". On Monday a video broadcast on Italian television revealed migrants who appeared to be forced to remove their clothes outdoors in the cold of winter before being hosed down with disinfectants. Investigations have been launched into the incident and the government has said it is terminating its contract with the cooperative that had been running the centre, which argued that the migrants decided to strip off of their own free will.

"The treatment we were doing, performed under the terms of a protocol, was taking an hour and a half and, at a certain point, some of the immigrants ran out of patience and took off their clothes," Cono Galipò, the chief executive of Lampedusa Accoglienza, told Radio Città Futura on Wednesday. The government has said the International Red Cross may take over.

Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom has called the images in the video, shot with a cell phone by a Syrian refugee and aired by Italian State broadcaster Rai, were "appalling and unacceptable". The man who filmed the scene told Rai the procedure is repeated every few days on both men and women in mixed company against scabies, a skin condition. He said migrants are treated "like animals" at the permanently overcrowded centre, which houses migrants from Africa and the Middle East who survive the perilous crossing to Italy by boat.

Among them are survivors from two disasters in October off the coast of Lampedusa that together killed around 400 people when their boats sank.

Italian Premier Enrico Letta said Friday that the video was "an intolerable ugly incident". He added that he agreed with Interior Minister Angelino Alfano's decision to terminate the contract with the cooperative running the centre.

The head of the powerful Italian Bishops' Conference (CEI) also joined the conversation Friday, calling on the European Union to become more involved with, rather than judge, the Lampedusa refugee centre in southern Italy. "I hope that Europe will involve itself in the situation and not just judge from the outside," said Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, head of CEI. He spoke after the European Commission threatened to halt the 30 million euros the EU has earmarked for aid to Italy in dealing with the thousands of migrants who arrive every year on the island between Tunisia and Sicily.

Meanwhile Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said Friday the government will continue hiring private contractors to run its migrant reception centers.

"But we will tell them that immigration is not a business, and we will step up our oversight procedures," the minister said.

Also on Friday, House Speaker Laura Boldrini told Vatican Radio that the center has been set on fire more than once, and blamed the abuses that occurred there on overcrowding. "Overcrowding made it impossible to provide dignified living standards. It's a short step from there to the horrible dysfunctions we witnessed," said Boldrini, a former UNHCR spokeswoman. "If those are the working conditions, it's no wonder people are made to strip naked in winter weather for medical treatment".