Nearly 900 immigrants converge on Italian island
50 minutes ago

ROME (AFP) — Nearly 900 would-be immigrants have arrived on Italian shores in the last two days, putting new pressure on an already overcrowded processing centre, a coastguard spokesman told AFP on Friday.

The coastguard rescued some 480 people on Friday after they were spotted near the island of Lampedusa, a speck of land 100 nautical miles from Tunisia and 200 miles from Libya, the embarkation point for most of the boat people.

Another 42 arrived on their own, the day after 355 Eritreans disembarked on the Mediterranean island, the southernmost piece of Italian territory.

Nearly 1,600 people are crowded into Lampedusa's processing centre, built to accommodate 850 people, Lampedusa Mayor Bernardino De Rubeis told the ANSA news agency, adding that some 250 would be transferred to other centres in Italy on Friday. "The situation is getting dire," he said.

Arrivals topped 15,000 in the first seven months of the year, nearly double the figure for the same period in 2007, according to the interior ministry.

Most risk their lives in rickety, overcrowded boats in the hope of finding a better life in Europe.

Italy's right-wing government, which took office in May, wants to double the number of centres for immigrants across Italy from 10 to 20. It is also renaming them, calling them "centres for identification and expulsion."

In addition, legislation is pending to extend the allowed detention period from two months to 18 -- an EU-wide norm.

The laws, which would also make illegal immigration a custodial offence punishable by between six months and four years in jail, are opposed by the Italian left, Roman Catholic groups and human rights organisations.

The usual stay in Lampedusa is 72 hours before migrants are transferred.

Seventy air force troops have been added to back up paramilitary police who patrol inside the Lampedusa facility. They are part of a 1,000-strong military force being deployed at immigration centres as the government -- which has linked illegal immigration with crime -- moves to boost security.

In July, the government also extended a state of emergency in effect in the vulnerable south -- closest to north African shores -- to the entire country, because of a "persistent and exceptional influx" of illegal immigrants. ... IffynNaPmg