UNHCR concerned over humanitarian situation in Lampedusa, Italy

Friday, 23 January 2009

GENEVA - The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees today expressed mounting concern over the conditions faced by nearly 2,000 boat people, including asylum seekers, currently crammed into one reception centre on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa. The centre has a capacity for only 850 people and hence cannot accommodate such high numbers. The result is that hundreds of people are now sleeping outdoors under plastic sheeting and adequate reception standards cannot be maintained.

The reception centre in Lampedusa was established to temporarily accommodate people rescued at sea while preparations are made for their transfer to various special centres set up throughout southern Italy to examine their situation and needs. Until now this arrangement has been seen as a model for the responsible management of mixed migratory flows. The practice has been to accommodate asylum-seekers in open centres and have their asylum applications examined by the territorial refugee status determination commission. At the beginning of this year, the government made changes to this arrangement whereby all migrants and asylum seekers must remain in Lampedusa until a decision is made on their cases.

The overcrowding of the temporary reception centre on the small island is creating a humanitarian situation of concern which also complicates the work of UNHCR and other organizations active there under a project funded by the Ministry of the Interior and the European Commission.

"During the past years, UNHCR has been working closely with the Italian authorities to develop a better system of managing mixed flows of asylum seekers and migrants reaching Lampedusa by sea," said Pirkko Kourula, Director of UNHCR's Bureau for Europe. "We urge the Italian authorities to take all necessary steps to address the difficult humanitarian situation now unfolding in Lampedusa."

Available data show that many boat arrivals in Lampedusa are persons originating from Somalia and Eritrea. According to preliminary figures for 2008, about 75 percent of those who arrived in Italy by sea last year applied for asylum, and around 50 percent of those who applied were granted refugee status or protection on other humanitarian grounds.