The latest waves of immigrants arriving on the Italian island of Lampedusa are from Libya and cannot be sent back as they are fleeing a conflict zone. The European Commission has called on EU countries to help Italy share the burden.
Some 500 boat people from Libya were rescued yesterday (8 May) after their frail vessel hit rocks off the Italian island of Lampedusa.
In a separate development, sixty-one immigrants died of hunger and thirst before their vessel finally reached shore on 10 April, back in Libya where they had started from.
Only 11 passengers survived the trip, and two of them died soon afterwards. According to the Guardian newspaper, Western military ships in the area ignored the boat in distress. Naval spokespeople declined to comment.
The two incidents highlight a new trend in immigration flows. Over the last few days, several overloaded small boats have started arriving at Lampedusa from Libya, carrying hundreds of mostly black African immigrants.
Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said the immigrants were refugees fleeing Libya due to the war and would not therefore be repatriated.
Cecilia Malmström, the EU's commissioner for home affairs, said she was "continuously concerned" by the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Libya, and called for "urgent action".
"The reports of men, women and children from sub-Saharan Africa being forced out of the country by the Gaddafi regime are particularly worrying," she said in a written statement.
Malmström urged the EU to show solidarity towards its most exposed member states as well as towards North African countries that were bearing the highest burden of the conflict in Libya.
"We cannot forget that Tunisia and Egypt have received most of the 650,000 people who have fled the violence in Libya in recent months," she said.
Malmström has advocated greater solidarity from other EU countries in sharing the burden of housing African refugees fleeing Libya, but has so far received little response.
This time, she insisted that the Union stood ready to provide financial support to countries that decide to take up refugees.
According to Sasha Chanoff, executive director of Mapendo International, a humanitarian agency, approximately 10,000 refugees from Darfur, Somalia, Eritrea, Iraq and other war-torn countries were residing in Tripoli and other cities in Libya before the civil war broke out.
The commissioner also said that the EU executive was organising a ministerial conference on 12 May, with the participation of EU interior ministers and representatives of UN refugee office UNHCR, the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) and the International Organisation for Migrations (IOM).
The conference will specifically call for relocation and resettlement, and discuss and review commitments and pledges made by EU members, she explained.
Last February, Italy declared a humanitarian emergency on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa after 4,000 people had arrived there by boat from Tunisia following a popular revolt that ousted the president.
Since then, civil war in Libya has added to the immigration pressure on Lampedusa, where an estimated 25,000 immigrants have arrived since the beginning of the 'Arab Spring'.
Last month, France reintroduced internal border checks with Italy in an effort to block North African immigrants, mainly from Tunisai, who hold temporary residence permits issued by Italy.
France's move caused a diplomatic row between the two countries, as well as reactions by other EU member states and at EU level [more]
- 12 May: Conference to discuss relocation and resettlement.