A group of 37 Africans who were put ashore at Porto Empedocle in Sicily on Monday 12 July have been taken to a centre for illegal immigrants in Agrigento, Sicily, from where they may be repatriated under existing Italian laws, unless they are granted refugee status.

The Africans were originally thought to be Sudanese seeking political asylum but some of them come from Nigeria and Ghana and would therefore be classified as illegal immigrants. They were first picked up on 20 June by a ship belonging to a German human-rights organisation and have been sailing between Maltese and Italian waters since then. The vessel has now been impounded and the captain and two senior members of the crew have been arrested for assisting illegal immigrants. The Italian minister of justice Roberto Castelli has said " The message that we are sending out to the world is that we are unable to protect our boundaries and that any one can come into Italy." The opposition parties are unhappy about the incident because they say that it makes criminals out of people performing humanitarian acts.

The German foreign ministry has let it be known that since the refugees landed in Italy it is a problem for Italy to resolve and that the Africans should not hope that they will be allowed into Germany.

The countrys statistics institute, ISTAT, shows that the number of people who have come ashore illegal in Italy has dropped significantly this year. In the three southern regions of Puglia, Calabria and Sicily 1,752 people landed illegally up to the end of May this year, compared with 3,936 in the same period in 2003 and 9,737 in 2002.

The ISTAT figures show that there were no illegal landings in Puglia (compared with 81 in the same period in 2003 and 2,567 in 2002). There were 12 in Calabria (compared with 177 in 2003 and 1,241 in 2002) and 1,740 in Sicily (compared with 3,678 in 2003 and 5,929 in 2002).