Italy’s Lampedusa struggles as migrant arrivals double the population

The tiny Italian island of Lampedusa on Thursday struggled to cope with a "critical situation" as the number of migrants peaked at 7,000 people – equivalent to the entire local population.

Italy, migrants, Lampedusa
Migrants gather outside the reception centre on the Italian island of Lampedusa on September 14th. Photo by Alessandro Serranò / AFP

The local reception centre, built to house fewer than 400 people, was overwhelmed with men, women and children forced to sleep outside on makeshift plastic cots, many wrapped in metallic emergency blankets.

Tensions broke out on Wednesday as food was being distributed by the Italian Red Cross, which runs the facility, causing police to intervene.

Some young men later left the overcrowded centre and went into Lampedusa’s old town centre, where an AFP photographer found some of them queuing for ice cream.

Several said they were hungry. Few had any money, and some restaurants turned them away. But other establishments offered food for free, or residents and tourists paid for them.

Located just 90 miles (around 145 kilometres) off the coast of Tunisia, Lampedusa is one of the first points of call for migrants crossing the Mediterranean.

Days of fine weather has seen a surge in arrivals in recent days, with more than 5,000 people arriving in Italy on Tuesday alone, according to interior ministry figures.

Migrants, Lampedusa

Migrants on the Italian island of Lampedusa prepare to board a ship bound for the Sicilian town of Porto Empedocle on Thursday, September 14th. Photo by Alessandro Serranò / AFP

Most are picked up at sea from rickety boats by the coastguard, which brings them to Lampedusa port.

But many do not make it that far. More than 2,000 people have died this year crossing the sea between North Africa and Italy, according to the UN migration agency.

The latest victim was a five-month-old baby, who reportedly fell into the water early on Wednesday as part of a group being brought to shore.

‘Critical situation’

For years, Lampedusa has struggled to cope with the numbers arriving, with humanitarian organisations reporting a lack of
water, food and medical care.

The Italian Red Cross took over in June promising to offer a more “dignified” welcome, but admitted this week it was having difficulty with the surge in arrivals.

It reported more than 7,000 people at the hotspot on Wednesday evening, a figure that resulted in “management problems, even if caused by a small number of people”.

Migrants, Lampedusa

An empty migrant camp on the Italian island of Lampedusa on Wednesday, September 13th. Photo by Alessandro Serranò / AFP

Some 5,000 people were due to be transferred by the end of Thursday to Sicily, where there are larger processing facilities.

“The situation is certainly complex and, gradually, we are trying to return to normality,” Francesca Basile, head of migration for the Italian Red Cross, said on Thursday morning.

She said that “despite the critical situation, we still tried to distribute cots to people to prevent them sleeping out in the open”.

“We provided everyone with food and distributed dinner last night and today too everyone will receive what they need.”

Italy’s hard-right government allocated 45 million euros to Lampedusa earlier this month to help the island better manage the migrant situation.

But Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, elected one year ago on a pledge to end mass migration, is calling for help from the EU.

Almost 124,000 migrants have arrived on Italy’s shores so far this year, up from 65,500 in the same period last year.

The numbers have yet to pass those of 2016, however, when more than 181,000 arrived during a surge in irregular migration into Europe, many of them Syrians escaping war.

Member comments

  1. Poor Lampadusa, These boats bringing these people to Italy should be stopped immediately.
    What the hell is Meloni doing?

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Italy joins countries calling for asylum centres outside EU

Italy is one of 15 EU member states who have sent a joint letter to the European Commission demanding a further tightening of the bloc's asylum policy, which will make it easier to transfer undocumented migrants to third countries, such as Rwanda, including when they are rescued at sea.

Italy joins countries calling for asylum centres outside EU

The countries presented their joint stance in a letter dated May 15th to the European Commission, which was made public on Thursday.

It was sent less than a month before European Parliament elections across the 27-nation European Union, in which far-right anti-immigration parties are forecast to make gains.

Italy, Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Estonia, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland and Romania signed the letter.

In it, they ask the European Union’s executive arm to “propose new ways and solutions to prevent irregular migration to Europe”.

They want the EU to toughen its asylum and migration pact, which introduces tighter border controls and seeks to expedite the deportation of rejected asylum-seekers.

The pact, to be operational from 2026, will speed up the vetting of people arriving without documents and establish new border detention centres.

The 15 countries also want to see mechanisms to detect and intercept migrant boats and take them “to a predetermined place of safety in a partner country outside the EU, where durable solutions for those migrants could be found”.

They said it should be easier to send asylum seekers to third countries while their requests for protection are assessed.

They cited as a model a controversial deal Italy has struck with Albania, under which thousands of asylum-seekers picked up at sea can be taken to holding camps in the non-EU Balkan country as their cases are processed.

READ ALSO: Italy approves controversial Albanian migrant deal

The European Commission said it would study the letter, though a spokeswoman, Anitta Hipper, added that “all our work and focus is set now on the implementation” of the migration and asylum pact.

Differences with UK-Rwanda model

EU law says people entering the bloc without documents can be sent to an outside country where they could have requested asylum – so long as that country is deemed safe and the applicant has a genuine link with it.

That condition differentiates it from a scheme set up by non-EU Britain under which irregular arrivals will be denied the right to request asylum in the UK and sent instead to Rwanda.

Rights groups accuse the African country – ruled with an iron fist by President Paul Kagame since the end of the 1994 genocide that killed around 800,000 people – of cracking down on free speech and political opposition.

The 15 nations said they want the EU to make deals with third countries along main migration routes, citing the example of the arrangement it made with Turkey in 2016 to take in Syrian refugees fleeing war.

Camille Le Coz, associate director of the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank, said: “In legal terms, these models pose many questions and are very costly in terms of resource mobilisation and at the operational level.”

The opening date for migrant reception centres in Albania set up under the deal with Italy had been delayed, she noted.

With the June 6th-9th EU elections leading to a new European Commission, the proposals put forward by the 15 countries would go into the inbox of the next commission for it to weigh them, she said.

She also noted that EU heavyweights France, Germany and Spain had not signed onto the letter.

“For certain member countries, the priority really is the implementation of the pact, and that in itself is already a huge task,” Le Coz said.