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?

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Italy’s migrant deal with Albania ‘must respect international law’: UN

Italy's plan to send migrants to Albania for processing risks violating international law, the UN warned on Tuesday.

Italy's migrant deal with Albania 'must respect international law': UN

The UN refugee agency said on Tuesday international law must be respected in a deal between Italy and Albania for migrants rescued at sea to be sent temporarily to the Balkan country for processing.

Tens of thousands of migrants rescued in the Mediterranean will be sent to purpose-built centres in Albania while Italy examines their asylum requests, the Rome government has said.

READ ALSO: Italy to send migrants to reception centres in Albania

Two structures able to accommodate up to 3,000 people at a time will be set up for “speedy processing of asylum applications or possible repatriation”, it added.

The deal with Albania, which is not part of the European Union, was announced on Monday following a meeting in Rome between Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama and Italy’s far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.

“Transfer arrangements of asylum-seekers and refugees must respect international refugee law,” UNHCR said in a statement Tuesday.

It added that it “was not informed about or consulted on the contents of the agreement or its details”.

READ ALSO: What’s behind Italy’s soaring number of migrant arrivals?

The centres, which Meloni said were expected to be up and running by spring 2024, will be built at Italy’s expense at the port of Shengjin and the Gjader area in northwest Albania.

A reception center for migrants on the island of Lampedusa, Sicily, on September 25th, 2023.

A reception center for migrants on the island of Lampedusa, Sicily, on September 25th, 2023. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP.

They will be designed to accommodate some 39,000 people a year, according to Meloni’s office.

Minors, pregnant women and “vulnerable people” will not be sent to the centres, Meloni told reporters Monday.

“UNHCR’s longstanding position is that returns or transfers to safe third countries may only be considered appropriate if certain standards are met,” the refugee agency said.

It voiced particular concern that “those countries fully respect the rights arising from the Refugee Convention and human rights obligations, and if the agreement helps share the responsibility for refugees equitably among nations, rather than shifting it.”

International refugee law stipulates that the primary responsibility for protecting asylum-seekers and processing claims lies with the state where an asylum-seeker arrives, UNHCR said.

READ ALSO: Italian PM Meloni blasts judge who rejected ‘unconstitutional’ anti-migrant law

It added that the transfer of asylum-seekers or “extraterritorial processing” did not change this.

A member of the Italian government clarified Tuesday that migrants would be taken directly to Albania, without passing through Italy, and that Rome would have legal jurisdiction over the centres.

But many questions remain over the functioning of the project.

Despite Meloni’s vow to stop boat crossings from North Africa to Italy, over 145,000 people have landed on its shores so far this year, compared to 88,000 in the same period last year, official data shows.