DAVID GREENE, HOST:

With mild spring weather taking hold, Southern Europe is bracing for a fresh wave of migrants and asylum-seekers arriving by boat from North Africa. For decades, Italy has seen the most arrivals. It also has passed one of Europe's most repressive laws on illegal immigration. The Italian parliament is now trying to repeal a law that's made migrants vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. The law has produced detention camps where undocumented migrants are held in incredibly difficult conditions.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: The Ponte Galeria detention camp is near Rome's international airport. It's surrounded by open fields but inside, it's grim and gray.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOUTING)

POGGIOLI: Detainees are locked behind bars in what look like cages. At the sight of visitors, they shout their various laments.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

POGGIOLI: The camp has been in the media spotlight since late January, when more than a dozen Moroccan migrants staged a demonstration. The men had been working in Libya. When they asked to be paid, they say their employer forced them onto a rickety vessels headed for Italy, where they landed in October. Three months later, Hicham Marrach says they resorted to a desperate form of protest. With fishing wire and sewing needles, they kept their lips stitched together for a week.

HICHAM MARRACH: (Through translator) We ended up in a place where we don't speak the language. We have no idea what will happen to us. We committed no crime and yet, we end up in jail. Sewing our mouths shut was the only way to make ourselves heard.

POGGIOLI: Evans Omeo and his wife fled inter-religious conflict in their native Nigeria. They were brought to Ponte Galeria after landing in Sicily in December, and placed in segregated male-female sections of the camp. He fears his father-in-law will kill them if they're sent back home.

EVANS OMEO: From Sicily, they bring me here - me and my wife. I asked for asylum. Me, I am Christian. My wife is a Muslim.

POGGIOLI: In a nearby caged area where 10 men live in a barracks-like room, we meet 29-year-old Bafouday Ceesay. He's from Gambia, and has lived in Italy for seven years. But when he lost his job, he also lost his permit to stay.

BAFOUDAY CEESAY: Conditions here are very, very bad. Sometimes, you don't get hot water. The heater, it don't go sometimes, so here is cold. No school, no nothing here. You don't go to school, you don't get work, you just sleep, eat - is all that we get here.

POGGIOLI: Undocumented immigrants who end up in detention can, by law, be held for up to 18 months before being expelled. Those who are fleeing persecution say they're offered little or no assistance in navigating Italy's complex asylum legislation. The NGO Doctors for Human Rights has visited all of Italy's 13 detention camps, and issued a scathing report. Alberto Barbieri headed the task force.

ALBERTO BARBIERI: These centers are places generating violence against yourself, against the structure, or generating violence against the others. These centers are useless places of human sufferance.

POGGIOLI: In 2012, Barbieri says, there were an estimated 340,000 undocumented immigrants in Italy. Of those, some 8,000 were detained but of those, only 4,000 were actually deported.

BARBIERI: Only one percent is actually expelled, every year, of total migrants - undocumented migrants. So what is the utility? It is like to empty the sea with a spoon.

POGGIOLI: Khalid Chaouki is Italian-born of Moroccan parents, and a lawmaker of the governing Democratic Party.

KHALID CHAOUKI: (Through translator) We are trying to reduce the detention period from 18 to two months, and radically change management of the centers by establishing specific guidelines.

POGGIOLI: But Chaouki says demoting illegal immigration from a crime to an administrative violation is only a partial solution. There are hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants in Italy working in agriculture, in factories and as caretakers. The real challenge, he says, is to legally recognize the many immigrants who have formed families, put down roots, and who contribute to Italian society.

As for the continuing wave of migrants, there are hundreds of thousands of people in Syria and sub-Saharan Africa still trying to escape conflict. When Italy takes over the EU's rotating chairmanship in June, Chaouki says, it will propose a European Union-wide agreement granting temporary humanitarian visas so that each member state can take in its share of asylum seekers.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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