UNHCR worried about conditions for 2,000 boat people on Italian island

News Stories, 23 January 2009

© UNHCR/A.Di Loreto
Centre of Attention: Boat people at the centre on Lampedusa Island.

GENEVA, January 23 (UNHCR) The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees expressed mounting concern on Friday about the conditions faced by nearly 2,000 boat people, including asylum seekers, crammed into one reception centre on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa.

The centre has a capacity for only 850 people and 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 accommodate people rescued at sea while preparations were made for their transfer to special centres in southern Italy, which were set up 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. Local residents have protested against the increased number of people being held in the centre.

"During the past [few] 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 Europe Bureau. "We urge the Italian authorities to take all necessary steps to address the difficult humanitarian situation now unfolding in Lampedusa."

Available data shows 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. The number of sea arrivals throughout Italy rose from 19,900 in 2007 to 36,000 last year.