21 MAR 2011
By Valentina Pop
EUOBSERVER / LAMPEDUSA - With hundreds of Tunisian migrants arriving every day by boat, the inhabitants of the overcrowded island of Lampedusa over the weekend have staged daily protests in the port, calling on the Italian government to step up the pace of transfers to the mainland.
"We are not against the migrants, not at all. It's the government in Rome, [Prime Minister] Berlusconi, who is to blame for this situation, it's absolutely unacceptable," said one resident, gesticulating in anger.
Some migrants joined the few dozen inhabitants protesting on Sunday in the port of Lampedusa, shouting "We don't want to be sent back" and "death to the dictator [Ben Ali]."
It was the third consecutive day of demonstrations. But this time it was against gendarmes and riot police who were blocking access to the docks where hundreds of stranded Tunisians were being given first aid and aluminium foil to wrap around their shivering bodies.
"We can't take them to the reception centre," says one aid worker, "there is no more room for them there." With its capacity already at its limit with 850 migrants, the reception centre on the island can no longer cope with the fresh arrivals. The total number of immigrants on the island stands at about 4,000.
On Friday, the locals protested on the dock itself, preventing the coast guard from coming on land with more rescued migrants.
A piece of EU territory just 113 km off the Tunisian coast, Lampedusa is usually home to some 6,000 inhabitants, mostly engaged in the tourism and fishery industries.
According to captain Vittorio Alessandro, spokesman for the coast guard, two more boats arrived by Sunday around with over 300 migrants between them. "It is possible that there are more boats on their way," he added. A military vessel, promised by the Italian navy to help out with the transfers to the mainland, "had not yet been sighted," he said.
The surge may not yet be as large as the one in February, immediately after the ousting of Tunisian dictator Ben Ali, but the inhabitants are becoming more tense as it gets closer to the start of the tourist season on which the economy of the island depends.
The mayor of Lampedusa, Bernardino De Rubeis, joined the protests on Sunday, claiming "victory" for not allowing tents and other temporary arrangements to be set up on the island - something that he says could keep tourists away.
"Italy should be ashamed today," he said, for allowing the migrants to be "treated like animals, urinating in the streets, sleeping under the open sky, in the rain." "Where is the humanity we are talking about?" he shouted in the loud speakers, blaming Berlusconi and other politicians for dragging their feet.
For the mainland, he argued, a couple of thousand of migrants "is nothing", unlike for the island, where there is no source of fresh water and the sanitary conditions are worsening by the day.
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