LAMPEDUSA, Italy — Tunisian boat people rioted Monday on the Italian island of Lampedusa in a protest against their imminent deportation under a controversial deal struck between Rome and Tunis last week.
“Freedom! Freedom!” shouted some of the migrants at a compound in which hundreds are being held. Some of them started a small fire at the centre which was quickly put out by the fire brigade, and dozens fled the enclosure.
Several of the escapees later returned to the immigrant detention centre.
Lampedusa measures just 20 square kilometres (7.7 square miles) and is closer to north Africa than to mainland Italy. More than 25,000 migrants have arrived in fishing boats from north Africa since the start of the year and most have been moved to detention centres on the Italian mainland.
Two planes carrying dozens of migrants flew out of Lampedusa to Tunis during the day despite protests by the deportees that delayed the second flight.
A first planeload of deportees left Italy for Tunisia on Sunday with around 30 migrants on board escorted by around 60 police officers.
Meanwhile two boats carrying 226 migrants arrived on the island on Monday, bringing to around 1,500 the number of boat people currently on Lampedusa.
Under a deal between Rome and Tunis last week, Italy agreed to grant six-month residence permits to migrants who arrived before April 5, while Tunisia agreed to the deportation of anyone arriving after that date.
Around 1,000 of the migrants on Lampedusa are believed to be Tunisians; the others are refugees from sub-Saharan Africa who have been fleeing Libya.
Italy has accused the European Union in general and France in particular of failing to help it deal with the wave of immigration. The issue topped the agenda of a heated meeting of interior ministers in Luxembourg.
German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said it was up to Italy to deal with the wave of migrants and find a solution with Tunisian authorities to stop people from reaching Europe’s shores.
“We cannot accept numerous economic migrants arriving in Europe through Italy. This is why we expect Italy to respect the existing legal rules and uphold its duty in discussions with the Tunisians,” Friedrich said.
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on Sunday said 80 percent of the more than 21,000 Tunisian migrants who have arrived since the start of the year wanted to join friends and relatives in France, Tunisia’s former colonial ruler.