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Berlusconi to visit Lampedusa for mass evacuations

30 march 2011, 15:55
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is set to visit Lampedusa on Wednesday, as boats arrive to evacuate 6,000 mainly Tunisian immigrants off the overcrowded island to mainland Italy, AFP reports.

"The situation on the island will be resolved" on Wednesday, Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said, as aid organisations warned that the immigrant living conditions were untenable.

Berlusconi, who held an emergency meeting in Rome on Tuesday evening to address the immigration problem, is expected to announce compensation measures for the local inhabitants of the island where the main industry is tourism.

Two boats arrived Wednesday morning and another three are expected during the day following government promises to transport up to 6,000 immigrants off the island to reception centres in Sicily and on mainland Italy.

The San Marco Italian navy vessel is already moored offshore and passenger ferries will also be used to transport the immigrants, mainly young men, many of whom have been sleeping in the open air on the dock for days.

Cooped up in pens marked out with ropes or dustbins, the men have protested at their confinement but are also worried about where they are being taken and whether they will be free to seek work.

"I left Tunisia because I didn't have any work. I don't know what will happen today and I'm afraid, very afraid. No-one knows anything and they are not telling us anything," 21-year old Tunisian Bechir told AFP.

"I just want to join my family in France," he added.

With only three chemical lavatories, little access to water for washing and growing tensions between locals and immigrants, aid organisations and charities have denounced the government for poor management of the crisis.

"It's not possible in the long term to leave 5,000 inhabitants living alongside close to 6,000 immigrants in such conditions," Laura Boldrini from the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR said.

"The situation is very tense. We cannot lose any more time," she said.

The usually taciturn Italian President Giorgio Napolitano has also condemned the situation as "unacceptable."

"We must intensify transportation in order to evacuate most of the people who have arrived," he said, calling on Italian regions who may have to put up the immigrants on a temporary basis for "cohesion and solidarity."

A toxic stench wafts off a hill next to the port where desperate immigrants are forced to defecate and urinate.

"Lampedusa must be cleaned out immediately or the situation will get out of control," health inspector Tullio Prestileo said after visiting the island.

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