(HN, September 30, 2011) - Using strong language somewhat uncharacteristic of the United Nations, the world body joined with the respected Save the Children to slam an Italian Government decision to close a port that has become a crucial transit point for refugees fleeing the violence and unrest in North Africa.
Lampedusa was declared an unsafe port by the Italians yesterday, meaning that aid groups are unable to transport refugees there.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and Save the Children have been working together since 2006 at the Reception and Rescue Centre of Lampedusa.
The three groups said in a news release Friday: "This decision could undermine the entire rescue at sea system for migrants and asylum seekers and at the same time could make rescue operations much more hazardous and complex.
"Since it is no longer possible to dock in Lampedusa, the ability of the Coast Guard and the "Guardia di Finanza" to carry out rescue at sea will be compromised by the distance they will have to travel to reach the next safe port, e.g Porto Empedocle, 120 nautical miles away. This would have severe implications on rescue operations when the weather is bad, or when it involves transporting people in need of urgent medical assistance, minors and other vulnerable individuals."
Aid groups say that migrants are hosted in the centre only for a minimum period of time to allow for assistance and identification before being transferred to appropriate facilities elsewhere in Italy.
"It is important that Lampedusa remains a safe harbour in order to save lives," the release said.
For its part, Italy says it cannot cope with the high numbers of migrants ending up on its shores. More than 48,000 have reached the shores of southern Italy since the start of the year.
Recently, 11 people were injured after refugees clashed with riot police on Lampedusa after hundreds of protesters -trying to resist repatriation - burned the reception centre down.
The organizations are also expressing their concern over the recent de facto detention of migrants on ships and question its legal basis and the conditions under which the migrants are kept. The groups said they want the practice stopped, that "appropriate solutions" are found as soon as possible in line with existing provisions in Italian and international law.
- HUMNEWS staff, UN