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Centre-left MP still 'locked up' in Lampedusa protest

Govt vows to change migration law in 2014 pact

23 December, 18:45
Centre-left MP still 'locked up' in Lampedusa protest (By Denis Greenan).

(ANSA) - Palermo, December 23 - A centre-left MP on Monday remained barricaded inside the migrant holding centre on the island of Lampedusa after shutting himself in Sunday morning to protest conditions there.

Democratic Party (PD) MP Khalid Chaouki said he would stay "as long as it takes" - even as Premier Enrico Letta, of the PD, vowed that reforming Italy's controversial migration law would be a priority in the programme he is set to hammer out with centre-right partners led by Interior Minister Angelino Alfano at the start of next year.

Letta said a reform of the law was "urgent" while Alfano also recognised the current system had to be improved, while hailing recent "victories" over the "merchants of death" who traffic people across the Mediterranean. The First Hosting Centre (CPA) on the Italian island between Tunisia and Sicily is where tens of thousands of migrants make first contact in Europe after the hazardous crossing over the Mediterranean from North Africa every year.

Chaouki issued an ultimatum that he will not leave until the overcrowded facility lives up to its obligation to be a transitory centre, to transfer the migrants to other facilities and better provide for their needs.

"The transfer of more than 200 being held in Lampedusa's First Hosting Centre to a more adequate facility can no longer be put off. I hope concrete signals come from the government," he said. "I am not moving until the CPA returns to the role it was assigned by international treaties - a temporary centre, where stays cannot exceed 96 hours," Chaouki went on.

"There are still seven migrants here who survived the October 3 shipwreck," added Chaouki making reference to one of Italy's worst maritime disasters, in which 366 migrants drowned off the coast of Lampedusa when the boat carrying them capsized.

"One of the survivors of the shipwreck suffers from severe depression and is being treated by a psychologist. There is fear that he could attempt suicide and the conditions here in which he lives certainly do not help. Something has to be done soon," Chaouki added, explaining that trauma was common among detainees. "During the night, my roommates told me their dramatic experiences to reach Italy. I tried to reassure them, telling them that Italy would support them and that this country will find a solution," Chaouki said.

Chaouki's demonstration began the same day news broke of 10 immigrants who sewed their mouths shut with needle and thread to protest their continued confinement in a secondary detention centre in the western periphery of Rome.

Rome Deputy Mayor Luigi Neri, who visited the Ponte Galeria CIE detention centre, said he was upset by their act of desperation. "I am devastated. I have never seen anything like it," said Neri. "Many are refugees who have arrived from Lampedusa, who fled their land and suddenly find themselves behind bars. It is unacceptable," Neri added.

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.

Last 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 in the Lampedusa centre.

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, even though the cooperative ordered that the centre be reorganized and its management fired.

Letta and President Giorgio Napolitano last week both condemned treatment of migrants at the holding centre.

Letta called the treatment of the immigrants captured on video "an intolerable ugly incident", while Napolitano said it "cast(s) a dark shadow and discredit(s) the humanitarian and solidarity-based commitments of our nation".

Alfano, who ordered the dismissal of the cooperative, said running the Lampedusa centre was likely to be assigned to the International Red Cross.

Alfano, once heir-apparent to ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi, is leader of the small breakaway New Centre Right which aims to push through reforms next year having shaken off the continuous diktats of Berlusconi hawks, who are back in opposition under the media magnate's first and fondly remembered banner, Forza Italia (Go Italy).

Italy's immigrant policy has been criticised in the past for allegedly not processing asylum requests properly, when boats were returned to Muammar Gheddafi's Libya.

It is now under fire for taking too long to process migrants, as well as holding them in inadequate facilities.

A healthy majority of migrants from Africa do not stay in Italy but move north to countries where more jobs and welfare benefits are available.