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By Sabina Castelfranco
Rome
20 July 2007

Summer has brought a new wave of arrivals of illegal immigrants from north African shores to Italy's southern island of Lampedusa. This week the holding center on the island was overwhelmed with the sheer number of arrivals. But officials say the difficult situation is slowly normalizing again. For VOA, Sabina Castelfranco reports from Rome.

An illegal immigrant baby receives first aid in Lampedusa harbour late as part of a group of 26 illegal immigrants from Eritrea intercepted by the Guardia di Finanza (border police) 30 miles off the coast of Lampedusa island, 29 June 2007
An illegal immigrant baby receives first aid in Lampedusa harbour, 29 June 2007
Over 700 illegal immigrants have been rescued off the coast of Lampedusa in the last three days alone. But facilities on the tiny southern Italian island cannot cope with these numbers. Like many other times, the holding center this week reached bursting point.

UNHCR spokeswoman in Italy, Laura Boldrini, had said the situation was critical with immigrants facing very difficult conditions. But now, she says, procedures to transfer some of these people out of Lampedusa to other centers on the Italian mainland have started and the situation is improving.

"When you have 900 people in a center which has a capacity for 190 you have a lot of problems, not only health problems but also logistical problems," she said.  "There were two very difficult days, but I see that now things have changed and now the association running the center there is much more under control."

UNHCR has had a presence in Lampedusa since March 2006. Boldrini says the organization is under pressure at the moment because of the sheer number of arrivals and it is doing its utmost to inform immigrants of their rights and how they can apply for asylum.

Thousands of North Africans every year risk their lives and pay traffickers large sums to make the crossing from Libya to Italy. Just this week, five died when their boat sunk. Boldrini says it is difficult to know when the immigrants are planning their crossings.

"This is an unpredictable phenomenon," she added.  "There are weeks with nobody arriving and then in 3-4 days you have 1,000 people. So it's very difficult to predict. Today it was quiet, but maybe tomorrow it will start again so it's better to be ready at any event."

Because of the constant overcrowding at the holding center in Lampedusa, a new center has been built on the island with a capacity of 400 people. This, despite the opposition of some local politicians, who would prefer their island to be a destination for tourists rather than one for illegal immigrants.

"The new one is bigger, with a bigger capacity," she said.  "It's better equipped. There are more facilities available. So we really hope this is going to be open very soon. From the ministry of interior they said it's ready and the move should take place any time."

Italy's interior minister Giuliano Amato says much is being done with the Libyan authorities to patrol their northern coastline to stop boats from attempting the sea crossing. But he added that Libya is under intense pressure, because of the thousands of Africans who illegally enter the country from the south. Amato says Libya has been asking the European Union to do more to help it control it southern borders.

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