|Expulsion centre opens on Lampedusa|
|Island strikes over 'Mediterranean Alcatraz' for immigrants|
| (ANSA) - Lampedusa, January 23 - The tiny southern Italian island of Lampedusa went on strike Friday to protest against a new identification and expulsion centre (CIE) for illegal immigrants that has opened on the island.|
Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said the creation of the centre, at a disused military base in an isolated area of the island, was ''necessary'' in light of his commitment to repatriate all illegal immigrants who arrive by boat on Lampedusa's shores.
In the past, immigrants have been transferred to the Italian mainland when the island's 850-bed migrant centre (CPA) has reached its capacity, but earlier this week the number of immigrants in the centre reached 1,850 - many of whom were sleeping in makeshift tents.
The chronic overcrowding has drawn criticism from United Nations' refugee agency UNHCR, who on Friday reiterated its ''growing concerns'' over the situation.
But Maroni said he was sticking to his December pledge to keep immigrants on the island until they could be identified and repatriated, explaining that the new CIE centre would speed up the process.
''The aim is to complete the repatriation plan within a few weeks,'' Maroni said.
''Since January 1 we have repatriated around 150 people (Egyptians and Nigerians) directly from Lampedusa. Next week I will visit several countries where cooperation accords for repatriation exist in order to reinforce these agreements and accelerate the process,'' he added.
No agreements exist with conflict-hit states such as Somalia, but immigrants recognised as asylum-seekers are exempt from Maroni's repatriation plans. The minister said 800 immigrants in the centre had applied for refugee status, of whom 377 had been recognised and would be transferred to other centres in Italy.
Around 250 immigrants were being transferred from the centre on Friday, but with 1,300 remaining it is still facing collapse, its director Cono Galipo' said.
Islanders angry that the new CIE has been opened without their consent meanwhile shut down shops on Lampedusa Friday to join a protest led by Mayor Bernardino De Rubeis.
Organisers claimed that 4,000 out of Lampedusa's 6,000-strong population had turned up at the protest, although police estimated that 2,500 was a more realistic number.
De Rubeis said Maroni's decision to open the CIE was ''inhumane'' and risked turning Lampedusa into ''the Mediterranean Alcatraz''.
''The inhabitants of the island are not racist and we are not angry with the immigrants but we don't want a structure on the island that would end up as a sort of prison, seeing that the policy of forced repatriations is not practical for a thousand reasons,'' De Rubeis said.
''Around 100 immigrants who have escaped from the CPA are currently protesting alongside us,'' he added.
Maroni hit back at the islanders, saying they ''were used to welcoming immigrants and then passing the problem on to other people in the rest of Italy''.
''The decision to stick to the fight against illegal immigration is in the interests of Lampedusa residents because it will work as a deterrent for those arriving on the island's shores,'' he said.
Maroni was backed by Lampedusa's deputy mayor and fellow devolutionist Northern League member, Angela Maraventano, who De Rubeis said earlier this week he was planning to sack.
''The only thing that's not right on Lampedusa is the mayor. Maroni's project is the only possibility. The islanders have not understood how things are and they are just being exploited,'' she said.
According to United Nations Refugee Agency figures, some 36,000 people landed on Italian coasts last year - a 75% increase compared to 2007 figures.
The statistics reveal that Italy took more than half of the 67,000 immigrants who arrived by sea in Europe last year.
The majority of Italy's illegal immigrants - around 31,000 - arrived on the island of Lampedusa, which is closer to the north African coast than the Italian mainland.