The Italian island of Lampedusa, where 50,000 migrants have landed this year following political upheaval in north Africa, descended into chaos yesterday with hundreds of immigrants clashing violently with police and residents.
Tensions first erupted on Tuesday night when Tunisian detainees torched the holding centre on the tiny Mediterranean outcrop in protest at plans to repatriate them. Serious clashes broke out yesterday when about 50 residents pelted a large group of Tunisians with stones after the migrants had threatened to explode gas canisters by a petrol station at the port.
Some 1,200 migrants were relocated to a sports field where further clashes took place. Riot police with shields and batons herded them into the corner of a raised terrace and beat them, forcing many to drop 12ft into a courtyard to escape the blows, according to reports on Italian television.
Angry residents of Lampedusa surrounded the town hall, calling on the mayor, Bernardino De Rubeis, to take a stronger line against the refugees. The local population of 5,000 has often been outnumbered by migrants.
The mayor replied by saying, "I have to defend myself and am ready to use it", before producing a baseball bat from a desk drawer in his office and showing it to journalists. "It's like a war zone," he added, calling on the state "immediately to send helicopters and ships to evacuate the Tunisians".
The Italian government has made it clear that it believes most of the Tunisians are economic migrants and wants forcibly to repatriate them.
The Corriere della Sera newspaper quoted the Interior Minister, Roberto Maroni, as saying: "Within the next 48 hours all the illegal immigrants on Lampedusa will be transferred from the island and then repatriated."
The United Nations refugee agency warned last week that the situation on Lampedusa was deteriorating because of the prolonged detention of Tunisians and people fleeing Libya – without any moves to determine whether they might qualify for asylum. The UN urged the Italian government yesterday to speed up the transfer of refugees from Lampedusa to more permanent centres. It said they were harming themselves and staging protests.
Until the recent mass influx of north Africans, Lampedusa was a quiet community that relied on fishing and summer tourism for a living. The endless flow of arrivals and the catastrophic effect this has had on tourism have seen tempers fray.Reuse content