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Wednesday, 20 March, 2002, 11:20 GMT
Inside Italy's growing refugee camps
Many refugees were suffering from exhaustion
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By James Coomerasamy in Bari
BBC Europe correspondent

A group of almost 1,000 illegal immigrants who landed in Sicily on board a cargo ship has been moved to the Italian mainland.

After a week spent travelling in the most wretched conditions, the refugees' home - for the moment - is rows of shabby caravans.

Inside the main part of the refugee centre, hundreds of migrants queue as volunteers rip open boxes filled with blankets.

This part of south-east Italy has grown used to becoming a gateway to Europe for the needy and fearful.

Nearly 1,000 refugees were onboard the Monica

The immigrants, who are thought to be mainly Kurds, are expected to seek political asylum.

"Iraq is very dangerous, we cannot live in Iraq," one man told me.

The people now crowding inside this converted tennis court have become pawns in Italy's political games. Opposing voices within the government have expressed very different views over the ayslum issue.

But local officials in Bari are keen to show that their instincts are overwhelmingly humanitarian:

"We only want to help these people", said Mario Giangrande of the local Prefect's office, "and make sure they live in the very best conditions."


At the other end of the building, Roberto is providing service with a smile as he hands the refugees trays of what look like limp TV dinners - but which he described with the loving detail of a top pasta chef.

With ships filled with more refugees rumoured to be heading for Italy, the reception centre here is bracing itself for a fresh influx

Once they have been given their food they go and sit in rows and rows of white tables.

There are hundreds of them here in front of me, all having their first square meal in several days.

They look pretty shell-shocked, but happy to finally have some hot food.

But as the bureaucratic part of the asylum procedure starts, the authorities here in Italy are mindful that these people have been brought here for a price.

One man told me he had paid $3,000 for the chance of a better life.

And with ships filled with more refugees rumoured to be heading for Italy, the reception centre here is bracing itself for a fresh influx.

See also:

19 Mar 02 | Europe
Destination: Europe
04 Jul 01 | Europe
Immigrant ship rescued off Italy
16 Jun 01 | Media reports
Divers locate 'phantom shipwreck'
20 Mar 02 | Europe
Analysis: Italy's asylum struggle
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