On Friday, September 15th, Lampedusa, an Italian island closer to North Africa than the Italian mainland, witnessed an overwhelming influx of migrants. Over 8,000 migrants have arrived on the island in the past three days, putting the island’s infrastructure and resources under immense strain.
The European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, visited a migrant reception center in Lampedusa following a call from Italy’s Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, for European Union (EU) assistance with the surge in small boat arrivals. Meloni emphasized the “unsustainable pressure” Italy is facing due to the crisis. Von der Leyen acknowledged the issue as “a European challenge” and praised Lampedusa’s residents for their support towards the migrants. She committed to enhancing support to transfer migrants out of Lampedusa and intensify efforts against human traffickers.
The island of Lampedusa, with a population of under 7,000, has been a primary destination for migrants crossing from North Africa. Mayor Filippo Mannino described the situation as reaching a “point of no return.” The UN refugee agency’s (UNHCR) representative for Italy, Chiara Cardoletti, labeled the situation in Lampedusa as “critical.” She highlighted the urgency of moving people off the island and mentioned that around 5,000 individuals had been transferred off the island in the last 28 hours.
A significant number of the migrants are fleeing political instability in Tunisia. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) expressed concerns about a potential rise in numbers, especially after the devastating floods in Libya. The influx of migrant arrivals has led to protests by local Lampedusa residents against plans to construct temporary housing to accommodate the migrants.
Italy has seen a significant increase in migrant arrivals this year, with nearly 126,000 migrants reaching its shores, almost double the number from the same period in 2022. The Italian Red Cross, which operates a facility in Lampedusa built for 500 people, is currently hosting thousands. They have been providing thousands of meals and assisting in transferring new arrivals to Sicily and other locations.
The crisis has also seen tragic incidents. A newborn baby’s body was recovered from a migrant boat, believed to have been born during the journey from North Africa. Earlier in the week, a five-month-old baby boy tragically drowned during a rescue operation after a boat capsized.
Italy’s Minister of Infrastructure, Matteo Salvini, termed the arrivals as “an act of war” and hinted at them being “orchestrated.” He applauded Meloni’s efforts to negotiate with Tunisia. In July, an agreement was signed with Tunisia, backed by €110m of EU funds, to curb smuggling, strengthen borders, and facilitate the return of migrants. However, the effectiveness of this agreement remains to be seen.