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UNHCR: Syrian refugees may try to reach Italy by sea

The UN's refugee agency warned Wednesday that Syrians fleeing civil unrest may try to reach Italy by sea and called for Rome to prepare its refugee center on Lampedusa island before an emergency hits.

The agency said more than 1,000 Syrian refugees had already arrived in Libya, which has long been used as a launching point for economic migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean to Italy.

"Syrians today are on the run. Over a thousand have already arrived in Libya, along with those people who are still fleeing countries like Somalia," Laura Boldrini, UNHCR spokesperson, said at a press conference in Rome.

"We cannot wait for a constant flux of refugees washing up on Italy's shores before we announce an emergency, the government has to act now to prepare Lampedusa for more boat-loads of people arriving from Libya," she said.

Italy declared the port on the tiny island of Lampedusa as "unsafe" in September 2011, after rioting Tunisian migrants angered at their long detention in cramped conditions set fire to the island's reception center.

"Unless the government restores the reception center, Lampedusa cannot take in any refugees rescued off the coast. This cannot wait," she said.

Boldrini's comments came as a new documentary, “Closed Sea,” hits cinemas in Italy, charting the country's human rights infringements towards immigrants intercepted at sea in 2009 and sent back to Libya, where they were imprisoned.

The documentary uses mobile phone footage of Eritrean and Somali refugees as a group of 200 or so set sail for Italy. Picked up at sea by an Italian ship, they were taken straight back to Libya where many were then tortured.

Huddled together in their leaky boat, they sing prayers to keep spirits up as the water and food runs out. Cheers erupt when the Italian authorities arrive, but all - pregnant woman, children and elderly - are taken back.

"You are throwing us into the hands of assassins, of man eaters," one Eritrean said he shouted at the Italian guards as the ship approached Tripoli.

In February, the European Court of Human Rights sanctioned Italy for sending back potential asylum seekers as part of a controversial pact between former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and deposed Libyan strongman Moammar Qaddafi.

Co-director Andrea Segre said he hoped the film - which is showing in some cinemas in Rome and northern Italy from Thursday - will impact Italians who have largely turned a blind eye to Rome's policy on immigration.

Riccardo Noury, spokesperson for Amnesty International, said: "It's unthinkable to have any sort of pact with Libya today. There is no guarantee that human rights will be upheld, and clear evidence of torture of dark-skinned people."

"And the question remains, what happens to those who are sent back by the Italians? Whether we're talking about Somalis, Eritreans or Syrians, this must never happen again," he said.

-AFP/NOW Lebanon

For live update on the Syrian uprising, follow @NOW_Syria on Twitter or click here.