Italy and Libya fast-track repatriation of African migrants

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As the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, arrived in Libya to discuss how to handle the tide of illegal immigrants from North Africa, Tripoli claimed to have repatriated up to 40,000 illegal immigrants and arrested several people traffickers.

Italy airlifted illegal immigrants to Libya this week in an attempt to deter would-be asylum-seekers from Africa, despite the United Nations' criticism of Rome's fast-track expulsions. Last week, some 1,700 refugees arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa, 110 miles off the African coast, in a flotilla of rusty old boats. These are the people who have been subjected to the airlift.

"Libya is a victim of illegal immigration," the Libyan Interior Minister, Nasser al-Mabruk, said.

"This is a tax we have to pay for our geographical location, our long land and nautical borders. Italian authorities asked Libyan authorities for their assistance. Libya has accepted this demand and returned them [the migrants] back to Egypt. The number is 1,000 people and they were returned on Italian flights and Italy is paying for the cost." In return for Libyan co-operation, Italy has been urging the European Union to lift sanctions against Libya to enable it to buy military surveillance equipment to help detect illegal immigrants. Italian authorities believe all the boats in the latest flotilla sailed from Libya, although most of the immigrants were from other countries.

A UN spokesman said in Geneva yesterday that Italy had granted the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, access to those remaining, but it had come "too late"

The UNHCR had accused Rome of breaking international law by not allowing its officials to interview the migrants on Lampedusa before they were flown out of the country.

"We have been advised by the Italian government we can have access to Lampedusa," Ron Redmond, the UNHCR chief spokesman, said.

"Unfortunately from our point of view it is too late. There are only about 200 people there now. Everybody else has been sent elsewhere."

The UNHCR demands access to detained migrants to determine whether they were fleeing war or persecution, something which would entitle them to apply for refugee status.