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Italy Unprepared for Onslaught of Libyan Refugees

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Italy Unprepared for Onslaught of Libyan Refugees

Italian officials are under increasing pressure to improve conditions for tens of thousands of refugees flooding into the country to escape unthinkable violence in war-torn Libya.

The international medical aid organization Doctors Without Borders called upon the Italian government on May 3rd, to improve reception conditions for Libyans, particularly children, unaccompanied minors, women and victims of violence.

“Those who arrived from Libya speak of the threats and the violence they experienced – some were shot at, others were beaten or saw their friends die before their eyes,” said Rolando Magnano, Doctors Without Borders head of mission in Italy.

He continued, “Others still tell us of horrendous detention conditions there – with 65 people held in one tiny room for a month without water, and so forced to drink from two toilets to survive. Others have seen relatives drown as they made the perilous journey by sea to reach Italy. Yet, when they arrive the suffering merely continues.”

Italy Conditions Described as “Prison-Like”

The organization detailed a heightened sense of anxiety among women who are too terrified to sleep, use the toilet or change their clothes because they haven’t been properly separated from the men.

There are also reports of migrants being crammed into facilities at almost double capacity. In one reception center on the island of Lampedusa, 1,200 people were crammed into a center built to house 800. Usually, people are forced to spend a few days at the facility before being sent to other reception centers throughout Italy.

In the May 3rd press release, Doctors Without Borders goes even further to describe conditions at some reception centers as “prison-like.” Under European standards, Italy is obligated to provide those fleeing violence with priority treatment, including specialized health care and mental health services.

Doctors and humanitarian workers on the ground describe the response as completely inadequate.

Berlusconi Didn’t Want to “Bother the Colonel”

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi finds himself in a bit of a political pickle. On one hand, there’s a certain amount of loyalty he has to Italy’s relationship with Libya and its ruthless dictator Colonel Muammar Qaddafi.

In fact, Berlusconi was slow to condemn Qaddfi’s horrifying crackdown on unarmed protesters. According to the New York Times, Berlusconi had said he didn’t want to “bother” the colonel. He eventually did denounce the violence after several days of bloodshed, when the conflict was still in its infancy.

Italy also gets almost one-fourth of its oil from Libya and enjoys billions in contracts with the Libyan government, so the financial stakes are high for Berlusconi.

As the United States and European Union push to freeze Libya’s assets, the International Criminal Court is launching an investigation into war crimes committed by Qadaffi. Italy, so far, is holding off on on freezing any of Libya’s assets.

Despite the conditions at some reception centers and the uncertainty about Italy’s economic dealings with Libya, no one could argue the Italian government has simply sat on its hands up until now.

Italian Cost Guards and Fishermen are Heroes

On Sunday, the Italian coast guard and local fishermen pulled off the harrowing rescue of 528 Libyan refugees after it smashed into rocks off Lampedusa, according to the AFP.

Yet, Italy will need to address the issues at Lampedusa as well as reception centers across the country. On Sunday alone, one boat carrying 800 refugees arrived just one day after two boats carrying nearly 850 refugees and migrants came ashore.

The small island near the North African Coast has been overrun with more than 300,000 migrants and refugees this year. Lampedusa’s permanent population is only 5,000. Of the scores of Libyan refugees and Tunisian migrants seeking financial stability and a better quality of life in Europe, most have been sent to mainland Italy, or back to their homeland in some cases.

There’s no sign that the flood of people fleeing violence is going to stop anytime soon, and Italy will have to address the issues brought to light by Doctors Without Borders, or risk having to deal with an out-of-control humanitarian crisis on its own shores.

More importantly, the time for Berlusconi to tread lightly with Qadaffi has come to an end. He doesn’t even need to look beyond the suffering happening on his own shores to see the Colonel is not someone Italy should continue doing business with.

Originally published on

  • 1bOz

    This article is so bias. Stop the war or start paying for the refugees.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the comment. Who’s the comment directed toward, Qaddafi? NATO? A particular country? The refugees? Who do you feel has the ability to “stop the war”?

“The thing about the truth is, not a lot of people can handle it.” -Conor McGregor

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