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Italy’s Lampedusa ‘in crisis’ with thousands of migrant arrivals

migrants wait on the sicilian island of lampedusa
Migrants wait near the port to be transferred to the mainland, on the island of Lampedusa, Italy

The small Italian island of Lampedusa is being overwhelmed by the number of migrants arriving on its shores, its mayor said on Thursday, after thousands of people landed from North Africa on flimsy boats over the past two days.

Lampedusa sits in the Mediterranean between Tunisia, Malta and the larger Italian island of Sicily and is a first port of call for many migrants seeking to reach the European Union.

“In the past 48 hours, around 7,000 people have arrived in Lampedusa, which has always welcomed them with open arms,” mayor Filippo Mannino told Italy’s RTL 102.5 radio.

“However, we have now reached a point of no return and the island is in crisis,” he said.

“Europe and the Italian state must step in immediately with a rapid support operation and swift transfer of people.”

The island normally has a population of just over 6,000.

The arrivals are a headache for Giorgia Meloni’s right-wing government which took power last October with a promise to crack down on immigration.

Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini decried a lack of support from fellow EU members, calling the arrivals “an act of war” and “a symbol of a socialist Europe”.

Meloni said at a conference in Budapest that some legal migration could benefit Europe economically, but could not be a solution to the continent’s demographic crisis.

In Brussels, the European Commission said it was in touch with the Italian government to discuss the possibility of offering more help for Lampedusa.

“We stand ready to support Italy and this is what we are doing,” a Commission spokesperson said.

BAKING SUN

Some migrants on the quayside in Lampedusa placed towels over their heads to shield themselves from the late summer sun as they waited to be transferred to Sicily by ferry.

Lampedusa has a migrant reception centre with an official capacity of only 400.

Preliminary data from Spain, another country on the EU’s southern flank, showed the number of migrant arrivals to the Canary Islands more than trebled to 2,891 people in the first two weeks of September.

Spain says instability in Senegal is one of the factors fuelling the increase.

Matteo Villa, a migration data analysis expert from the ISPI think tank in Milan, told Reuters migrant arrivals to Italy this year are close to the record registered in 2016, when more than 180,000 people came.

He said Lampedusa was under particular pressure because 90% of migrant boats in the last three months came from Tunisia, the closest African country, and because there are fewer search and rescue missions intercepting migrants at sea.

Meloni’s government has restricted the activities of charity rescue boats, impounding their vessels, banning them from conducting multiple rescues and making them travel longer distances to disembark migrants.

Italy has sought to improve ties with Tunisia and in July Tunis and the European Union signed a pact aimed at stemming migrant flows but that has had no immediate impact.

Since the start of the year, almost 124,000 sea migrants have landed on Italian shores, almost double the number recorded in the same period in 2022.

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