Situation on Italian island of Lampedusa 'explosive' after 2,000 migrants arrive in 24 hours
The situation on the tiny Mediterranean island of Lampedusa is “explosive” after more than 2,000 migrants landed in just 24 hours, as smugglers switch away from rubber dinghies in favour of steel-hulled fishing boats that can carry hundreds of asylum seekers.
It was the largest number of migrants to arrive on Italian shores in a single day so far this year.
The surge was seized on by Matteo Salvini, the head of the nationalist League party, who criticised the ruling coalition despite being a part of it.
He demanded an emergency meeting with Mario Draghi, Italy’s prime minister, to discuss ways to deter migrant boats from arriving.
He said Italians, exhausted by the pandemic, successive lockdowns and a drop in GDP of around nine per cent in the last year, were in no mood to be welcoming.
“With millions of Italians in economic difficulty, we cannot look after thousands of clandestine migrants, with 12,000 already having arrived so far this year,” Mr Salvini said.
Giorgia Meloni, the head of the hard-Right Brothers of Italy party, which is fast catching up with the League in popularity, called for Italy to organise a “naval blockade” to prevent smugglers’ boats reaching land.
“The situation on Lampedusa is literally explosive,” said Domenico Pianese, the secretary-general of a police union.
Since Sunday morning, 2,150 migrants had arrived on the tiny island, which lies south of Sicily and has for years been a target for economic migrants and refugees crossing the sea from Libya and Tunisia.
The island’s migrant reception centre has a capacity for just 200 people and has been overwhelmed by the influx. Around 600 of the new arrivals had to sleep on the dockside.
“If we have another day like yesterday, with an incessant succession of disembarking, it will no longer be possible to manage public and health safety,” said Mr Pianese.
The dramatic spike in the number of migrants reaching the island was explained, in part, by the onset of calm weather, making the passage from North Africa less perilous.
The large numbers were also facilitated by smugglers switching from using rubber dinghies to packing asylum seekers into large, steel-hulled fishing boats, which can hold 400 people or more.
Dinghies can be launched at night from remote beaches whereas ships have to leave from ports, suggesting complicity by Libyan authorities.
“The flow of migrants has changed, I’ve been saying it for weeks,” said Salvatore Martello, the mayor of Lampedusa. “We’re no longer seeing little boats with 15 or 20 people arriving from Tunisia but big dinghies and fishing boats, some of them with two decks, which can carry up to 300 people. They have been arriving one after the other, the biggest one had 400 people on board.”
Libyan authorities had “turned on the taps” of migrants seeking to reach Italy, he said.
So far this year, nearly 13,000 migrants and refugees have arrived.
That compares to just over 4,000 for the same period last year, and around 1,000 in the same period in 2019.
Ylva Johansson, the European Home Affairs Commissioner, called on other EU countries to take in the migrants.
“Faced with this huge amount of migrants arriving in very little time we need solidarity towards Italy and I urge other member States to support resettlements.
“I know it is harder to manage migrant flows during the pandemic but it is possible to do so and it is time to show solidarity to Italy.”
Successive Italian governments have complained for years that the rest of Europe fails to pull its weight in taking in asylum seekers and that promises of resettlement often come to little.
A senior UN official said the numbers, although high, should be manageable.
“The fact that over this weekend, we have witnessed again, arrivals through the central Mediterranean is further proof that ... Europe needs predictable mechanisms to deal with these matters,” said Filippo Grandi, Commissioner of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
“Yes, there were several boats coming but we're talking about manageable numbers: through a rational and agreed mechanism this would be very manageable, in our opinion.”
There should also be a “fair mechanism of return to their countries of those that are not recognised as refugees,” he said.