Some 700 immigrants broke through the gates of the centre where they were being held on the Italian island of Lampedusa, and started demonstrating in the city streets, the mayor said.
Out of about 1,300 people in the immigration prison, “about 700 immigrants in total fled this morning. It is a very tense situation,” said Lampedusa mayor, Bernardino De Rubeis.
Italy’s interior ministry put the number involved at only around 100.
“Some 100 illegal immigrants left the centre to protest, (then) returned there,” it said in a statement.
The migrants, who far outnumbered police, marched through the streets toward city hall shouting “Freedom, help us!”
Some residents also took part in the march while others applauded, a report by the ANSA news agency said.
Racist Scumbag Berlusconi told ANSA: “Everything is under control, not least because I do not see where these migrants could go.
“What’s more, the sea is rough and so their only option is to stay here,” he added.
The migrants, mostly from Africa, were protesting against the establishment of a new Centre for Identification and Expulsion (CEI) since Friday, which will enable quick repatriations of those migrants without proper documentation.
They also denounced conditions at the centre which has a capacity of only 850. Until the transfer on Friday of around 300 people, there were around 1,600 people being held there.
On Friday around half the island’s residents also protested against the new immigration centre.
The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees on Friday expressed “mounting concern” over conditions at the existing centre.
“The centre has a capacity for only 850 people and hence cannot accommodate such high numbers,” the UNHCR said in a statement.
“The result is that hundreds of people are now sleeping outdoors under plastic sheeting and adequate reception standards cannot be maintained.”
The government says the new centre will help identify illegal immigrants and speed up their deportation.
Interior Minister Roberto Maroni announced last month that immigrants would be sent straight back to their country of origin instead of being transferred to other centres on the Italian mainland, as had been the practice.
The ministry has said 150 people have been returned to their country of origin since January 1.
Lampedusa is Italy’s southernmost island and the main arrival point for migrants coming from Africa.
The current influx began in 1996 and has steadily increased over the past two years.
Although migrants usually try to make the crossing during the spring and summer months, more and more have started to risk dangerous winter crossings.
There are no official figures for the number of people killed trying to make it to Euroepan soil but the Italian charity Fortress says at least 1,502 people died in 2008.
The interior ministry estimates that 31,700 immigrants landed on Lampedusa in 2008, a 75 percent increase on the previous year.
According to UNHCR, preliminary figures for 2008 showed that about 75 percent of those who arrived in Italy by sea last year applied for asylum.
Around 50 percent of those who applied were granted refugee status or other protection on other humanitarian grounds, it added.