At least 10,000 asylum seekers and refugees in Italy have no access to official reception centres and are living in subhuman conditions in squats and other makeshift settlements, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said Tuesday.
In a report, MSF said it studied 35 sites across the country, including former factories, train station depots, parks and even the abandoned Olympic Village from the 2006 Winter Games in Turin that houses more than 1,000 refugees.
Half the sites did not have access to electricity or running water, and a third of the refugees who had been in Italy for more than a year were not covered by the national health service, mostly because they did not meet residency requirements.
"This is an invisible population, ignored or tolerated by institutions," the president of MSF Italy, Loris De Filippi, said in a statement, charging that irregular migrant settlements are regularly cleared, with no offer of alternative accommodation.
MSF's Giuseppe De Mola said at a press conference that researchers had even been barred by residents at two sites in Rome from entering the areas because of "ever-growing" distrust and self-isolation.
A third settlement in the Italian capital being monitored by MSF is just a few minutes away from the charity's offices, it said. A banner hanging from the building, the former headquarters of a government agency, reads: "We are refugees, not terrorists."
MSF said Italy had made insufficient progress in expanding its asylum reception capacity. At the end of last year, it had 110,000 places available for asylum seekers but had received 148,000 requests over the 2014-15 period.
According to the medical charity, Italy's asylum reception facilities avoided "paralysis" only because most migrants who land on its shores move on to northern Europe. Out of 320,000 sea arrivals in 2014-15, less than a third filed Italian asylum requests, MSF said.
Italy is expected to see a surge in migrants this year after the tightening of border controls along the so-called Balkan route connecting Turkey to Germany, which last year was crossed by about 1 million people.
On Tuesday, the Italian Navy said it had conducted an overnight rescue of 244 migrants, while the Coastguard said it was coordinating 10 separate sea rescue operations off the coast of Sicily for an unspecified number of people.
Separately, Amnesty International and the Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration (ASGI) said they would seek legal redress for 14 migrants sent back to Libya under Italy's controversial pushback policy, enforced in 2009-10 and then abandoned.
Plaintiffs should be awarded damages and humanitarian visas allowing them to demand asylum in Italy, ASGI lawyer Laura Cecchini said at a press conference.
In a statement, Amnesty and ASGI said those sent away under the pushback measures suffered "months of prison detention, violence, and inhuman and degrading treatment" upon their return to Libya.