Television footage showed riot police wielding clubs and beating the migrants as they jumped from a balcony near the island’s commercial port Wednesday. The clashes came a day after migrants set their overcrowded holding centre on fire to protest Italy’s policy of forced repatriations.
Some 26,000 Tunisians and 28,000 people of other nationalities from Libya have arrived in Lampedusa this year since the beginning of the Arab revolts. Italy has been sending the bulk of the Tunisians home if they don’t qualify for political asylum, but residents on the island have complained they are being overwhelmed with migrants and are bearing the entire EU’s immigration burden alone.
Clashes broke out Wednesday as some residents hurled stones at migrants who were threatening to blow up some gas canisters, news reports said. Angry residents also assaulted TV crews and other journalists covering the rioting, telling them to leave the island alone.
The clashes left several people injured, the reports said.
Lampedusa mayor Bernardino De Rubeis denounced the government for abandoning the island to cope with the chaos alone, calling the migrants “delinquents” and insisting the island wouldn’t accept one more.
He said he kept a baseball bat in his office for protection.
“I must defend myself,” he was quoted as saying by ANSA. “We’re at war, people have decided to take justice into their own hands.”
He demanded Italian President Giorgio Napolitano come to Lampedusa “to show some solidarity with people who have been violated repeatedly” by the arrival of so many desperate migrants.
A Mediterranean island closer to Africa than the Italian mainland, Lampedusa has been overwhelmed this past spring by thousands of Tunisians fleeing unrest during the social upheaval at home. Tensions flared occasionally, particularly when the holding centre became overcrowded. The centre is designed to hold about 850 people but it now holds up to 1,300.
The Interior Ministry condemned the rioting and vowed to stay the course.
“These episodes of unacceptable violence don’t change our repatriation plan, which continues and will not slow down,” it said in a statement.
The UN refugee agency warned last week that the situation at the centre was getting tense, with prolonged detentions of both Tunisians and people fleeing Libya without any moves to determine whether they might qualify for asylum.
It said migrants were harming themselves, staging protests and that several large groups had left on their own.
The UN agency urged the government to take measures to transfer the migrants from Lampedusa to more permanent centres.