Italian military planes carried 360 would-be migrants from the Italian island of Lampedusa to Libya on Wednesday, a move that officials here described as an emergency response to a flood of boat people but which international observers criticized as a breach of human rights.
The deportees were among 1,200 people of several nationalities who had arrived by sea in recent days at Lampedusa, 70 miles off the North African coast. Most were believed to have embarked in Libya.
Previously, Italy had sent such arrivals to holding camps around the country for processing, in case some of them were seeking political asylum. Because of the secrecy surrounding Wednesday's deportations, it wasn't clear whether any of the migrants had sought, or were asked, about asylum.
After U.N. refugee officials were barred from visiting a holding facility on Lampedusa on Saturday, representatives of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees were granted permission to inspect the site on Thursday, news reports said.
Italy's prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, announced that he would visit Libya Thursday for talks with Moammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, about stemming the flow of boat people.
About 200 migrants remained in Lampedusa on Wednesday. They were scheduled to be flown Thursday to Libya.
Officials of Berlusconi's government said the quick deportations were necessary to deter more arrivals. Thousands of potential migrants are gathered at the Libyan port of Zuwara to make the Mediterranean Sea crossing, according to news reports.
The number of migrants, who arrange the trips through smugglers, has surged in recent weeks in a seasonal pattern that exploits calm seas in the strait separating North Africa from the Italian coastline. A separate group of 21 boat people arrived Wednesday in Sicily.
"We have sent a strong message," a spokesman for the Interior Ministry said. "The emergency is over."
Gianfranco Fini, who heads the National Alliance party, which is part of Berlusconi's coalition government, dismissed charges that the deportations were improper. "When they use such expressions as 'mass deportation' or 'denied human rights,' they are only saying plain lies," he told reporters.
However, Jurgen Humburg, the U.N. refugee agency representative in Rome, complained that he had asked as early as Saturday to visit the Lampedusa holding facility and that the Interior Ministry declined to grant permission.
"We have the suspicion that given the rapidity of the transfer of the immigrants that there was insufficient time for a sure identification and conditions for the right to request asylum were not respected, " Humburg said.
The Rev. Vittorio Nozza, a priest and director of Caritas, the Roman Catholic aid agency, complained that "we have moved the line by pushing immigrants to states not known as champions of human rights. The situation can only get worse."
The deportees are detained upon their return to Libya. Humburg said the Libyan government has turned down a request for the United Nations to check the conditions of returnees, although Libya has pledged to arrange land transportation to the migrants' countries of origin. Human rights groups in Egypt have pressed their government to investigate cases of Egyptian migrants who have disappeared without a trace in Libya.
As for Italy, televised images of handcuffed migrants being herded onto C-130 transport planes have sullied the country's self-promoted image as a paragon of human rights protection. The Berlusconi government, backed by Germany, has proposed establishing holding camps in Libya where prospective migrants would be considered for asylum applications.
The crossing to Italy is one of several migrant routes to the European continent. North Africans cross the Strait of Gibraltar to Spain while Asians and East Europeans traverse land frontiers.
Romanians are the fastest growing immigrant group in Italy and lately, the numbers of Ukrainians and Moldovans have also spiked, Caritas reports. Italy has tried to tighten its internal controls by rounding up undocumented aliens, but the demand for cheap labor is a magnet for migrants.