EU scrambles to address Italy island migrant surge

AFP , Saturday 16 Sep 2023

The European Union said Saturday that its top official Ursula von der Leyen would visit the Italian island of Lampedusa, after Rome called on Brussels for help after a surge in migrant arrivals.

Lampedusa Island
Migrants wait to be transferred from the Lampedusa Island to the mainland, Friday, Sept. 15, 2023. AP


The president of the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, will head to the island on Sunday with Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, officials from both sides said.

Before that, the interior ministers from Italy, France, Germany and Spain held a phone call Saturday afternoon with the EU's home affairs commissioner on the crisis.

Meloni has urged the EU to act to relieve the pressure after thousands of people landed in boats over three days this week on Lampedusa, just 90 miles (145 kilometres) off the coast of Tunisia.

The spike in arrivals has rekindled the debate over how Europe shares responsibility for asylum seekers.

Lampedusa, Italy's southernmost island, has long been a landing point for migrant boats from North Africa. But this week its migration centre, built to house fewer than 400 people, was overwhelmed.

Between Monday and Wednesday, around 8,500 people -- more than the entire local population -- arrived in 199 boats, according to the UN migration agency.


Images of people sleeping in the open air, scaling the perimeter fence and wandering around the town, sparked anger among members of Italy's hard-right government.

The congestion eased as officials transferred thousands of migrants from the tiny island of Lampedusa to Sicily on Friday

While hundreds more were being moved across on Saturday morning, there were further arrivals by sea. The Italian Red Cross said 2,500 people remained at the overcrowded migration centre.

Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini has called the arrivals an "act of war", and on Friday, Meloni urged the European Union to do more to help.

"The migratory pressure that Italy has been experiencing since the beginning of the year is unsustainable," she said.

She urged von der Leyen to visit Lampedusa and asked European Council President Charles Michel to put the matter on the agenda for October's EU summit.

Von der Leyen -- with Meloni's strong backing -- struck an agreement with Tunisia in July aimed at curbing the flow of irregular migration from the North African country.

Arrivals double

Tunisia is a main embarcation point for migrants making the perilous sea-crossing to Europe each year.

More than 127,000 migrants have arrived on Italy's shores so far this year, up from more than 66,000 in the same period last year.

Over 2,000 people have died this year crossing from North Africa to Italy and Malta, according to the UN migration agency.

Mass migration is a key political issue in several EU capitals ahead of European Parliament elections next June.

In France, members of the far right said the government should not allow any migrants from Lampedusa across the border from Italy.

French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said Saturday that the time had come "first and foremost to show solidarity with Italy" and "mobilise" the European Union.

She said France's President Emmanuel Macron would hold talks with Meloni.

Germany earlier this week confirmed it had stopped accepting migrants living in Italy under a European solidarity plan aimed at easing pressure on EU border nations.

The EU is pushing to overhaul its rules on how to handle the thousands of migrants heading to the continent.

Southern countries that face large numbers of arrivals such as Italy, Greece and Spain have long pressed for other countries to take more of those who come.

But right-wing governments in Poland and Hungary have strongly opposed an agreement.

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