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Migrants escape on Italian island

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Protests on the streets of Lampedusa

Hundreds of illegal immigrants broke out of a detention centre on the Italian island of Lampedusa and staged a protest against conditions.

Lampedusa mayor Bernardino De Rubeis said that the centre's security fence had been toppled and some 700 immigrants took to the streets.

The protesters were complaining about conditions at the camp, which was built for 850 but is currently holding 1,800.

The protesters all returned to the camp during the afternoon.

On Friday, the UN urged Rome to address the "difficult humanitarian situation".

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) expressed mounting concern about overcrowding. Hundreds have been forced to sleep outdoors in the cold.

The UNHCR also criticised a government decision to hold those who survive the perilous sea-crossing on the Mediterranean island until their cases are decided. Previously, they were sent to other centres.

'Pushed the gate'

Mr De Rubeis said about 700 immigrants had fled the detention centre on Saturday morning and converged on the nearby town centre, shouting "Freedom" and "Help us".

Illegal migrants march through Lampedusa after breaking out of their detention centre, 24 January
The migrants marched through Lampedusa shouting "Help us!"

One protester quoted by Reuters said: "We simply pushed the gate and all got out. We didn't cause any damage at all."

The migrants were protesting about conditions at the detention centre and the government's move to open a new Centre for Identification and Expulsion (CEI) at a disused military base on the island.

The UNHCR's Italian spokeswoman, Laura Boldrini, said overcrowding had made it hard to bring help to those at the camp:

"The centre has a capacity for 850 people and there were about 1,800 people, so in this situation you understand it's difficult to deliver assistance or to also give information on the rights of these people... the adequate reception standard cannot be maintained in such a situation."

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi downplayed the severity of the protest

"There is no problem in Lampedusa. Those who arrive there can move freely. It isn't a concentration camp. They're free to go and drink a beer," he said.

Some local residents took part in the protest, Ansa reported.

Earlier protests have been held by residents against the government's plans for the new holding centre, which Mr De Rubeis said they believed "would become a sort of prison".

The Italian interior ministry says about 31,700 immigrants landed on Lampedusa last year - an increase of 75% from 2007.

Map of Italy, including Lampedusa, and Libya

In the past, those migrants seeking asylum would have been sent to the Italian mainland.

Now, under a new policy implemented in December, they are being held on the island. Those that fail immigration checks are sent back to their home country.

Correspondents say many would-be migrants are fleeing wars or poverty in countries such as Somalia and Eritrea and risk the dangerous Mediterranean crossing to enter Europe.

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