ROME: The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) Tuesday accused Italy of abandoning hundreds of refugees in car parks on the outskirts of Rome and Milan, leaving them without shoes or food.
The criticism came as Italy struggles to deal with waves of immigrants arriving on its southern coasts in overcrowded boats, with more than 50,000 people landing so far this year – a similar number to those who arrived in all of 2013.
The UNHCR slammed the “unacceptable” treatment of the refugees from Syria, Somalia and Sub-Saharan Africa who landed in Sicily Monday and were taken to Rome and Milan in coaches overnight.
“There were two groups of between 160 to 170 people each. One of the groups was abandoned near Rome, the other near Milan,” Carlotta Sami, the UNHCR’s spokeswoman in Italy, told AFP.
Those left near Rome were eventually taken in by a center for asylum seekers in the capital Tuesday, but those in Milan were still in the parking lot in the middle of the afternoon, she said.
The refugees “were found without shoes, disorientated, and without having been given anything to eat or drink,” the agency said.
They were part of a group of 1,300 immigrants – including hundreds of women and dozens of babies – who had been picked up and taken to the southern Italian city of Taranto Monday.
Hundreds of others rescued at the same time were taken to Sicily, where officials said they were no longer able to cope with the influx of people.
In the latest tragedy to hit boat refugees, Italy’s coastguard said Tuesday that three migrants drowned and six more were missing in the Mediterranean.
In a separate incident, four migrants from the Central African Republic fell from a rope ladder connecting a merchant ship with their stricken vessel and were swept away, according to the ship’s captain.
Two suspected smugglers were also arrested after they arrived with rescued refugees at the Sicilian port of Pozzallo, Italian news agency ANSA reported.
Favorable weather conditions mean that thousand of migrants are expected to attempt the perilous crossing from north Africa to the Italian coast in the coming days.
Gil Arias Fernandez, the head of Frontex, the European Union border coordination agency, said recently that “hundreds of thousands” of migrants were currently in Libya and hoping to leave as soon as possible because of growing lawlessness in the country.
Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano estimated the number at between 400,000 and 600,000 people.