After years in which hundreds of migrants were housed for long periods often in squalid conditions, the building was turned into an identification centre where migrants, in theory, spend just a few days before being transferred.
Those rescued at sea are now mostly taken directly to Sicily: in 2017, Lampedusa – which lies closer to North Africa than to Italy – only received 9,000 of the 119,000 migrants that arrived on the country's shores.
Many of them were Tunisians, arriving in such vast numbers that the systematic repatriation agreement in place with Tunisia could not keep up. Italian authorities have preferred to keep the new arrivals on the island in the hope of repatriating them, rather than losing sight of them on the mainland.
Several protests have broken out in recent months as migrants lashed out at prolonged waiting times. Last week a protest ended in an arson attack which left part of the centre in ruins.
Burnt walls, rubbish-strewn corridors, foam mattresses without sheets and squalid toilets without doors, could be seen in photos taken by a fireman which circulated in the Italian media.
People waiting outside the centre in 2015. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP
Even before the fire broke out, several associations had denounced the living conditions of the 100 or so migrants living in limbo in the centre, some of whom had been there for months.
On Tuesday, the Italian Red Cross threatened to end its activities in the centre if measures were not taken to ensure the safety of the migrants and the staff.
Hours later, the mayor of Lampedusa, Salvatore Martello visited the interior ministry in Rome, where a “temporary” closure of the centre, with no fixed end date, was decided.
Migrants will be moved quickly to other centres while “restructuring work takes place, starting with the fence, the canteen and the video surveillance,” the ministry announced in a statement.