Top EU official heads to an Italian island struggling with migrant influx as Italy toughens stance
MILAN (AP) — European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen plans to travel Sunday to the Italian island of Lampedusa, which was overwhelmed with thousands of migrants arrivals this week, at the invitation of Italy’s premier, who is calling for a naval blockade of North Africa.
Von der Leyen’s spokesman, Eric Mamer, confirmed on Saturday that she would make the trip at the invitation of Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni.
Tensions on the small island were rising Saturday, as both residents and migrants chafed at the long wait times to transfer people from the crowded reception center to the Italian mainland. Nearly 7,000 migrants arrived on Lampedusa from Tunisia this week, and the Red Cross said that 3,800 remained on the island on Friday.
Media reports indicated that was down to about 2,000, with authorities working to transfer most of those by the end of Saturday.
Residents gathered in the center of town Saturday to protest plans to put up a tent city on Lampedusa, and demanded a meeting with a Sicilian regional law enforcement official. A representative told the official that islanders have run out of patience after three decades of coping with arrivals.
Meanwhile, footage aired by SKY TG24 showed police using shields to prevent migrants inside the reception center from surging to the gate. Elsewhere, migrants sat along a roadside looking fatigued in the heat, waiting for a transfer.
Migrants continued to arrive Saturday, but in far smaller numbers, around 500. They included the body of a newborn, who reportedly was born during the crossing. The mother was being treated at a clinic on the island.
On Saturday, Italian Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi called for concrete measures “aimed at blocking the departures at their origins” during a video conference with his French, German and Spanish counterparts, and EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson.
The group agreed to work on an “operational” response during an upcoming gathering of EU justice and interior ministry officials later this month.
Meloni on Friday vowed “extraordinary measures” to deal with an influx of migrants, calling anew for a naval blockade of North Africa and saying that Europe needs a “paradigm” change to deal with issues pushing migration, including conflict, instability, soaring grain prices and climate crises.
“Obviously, Italy and Europe can’t welcome this massive influx of people, especially when these migrant flows are being managed by unscrupulous traffickers,” she said.
Most of the migrants arrived from Tunisia, despite an EU accord with the North African country to stem smuggling operations in exchange for economic aid.
The crisis is causing tensions in Meloni’s government, as the head of the League, Matteo Salvini, has raised his criticism on the EU-Tunisia deal.
As Meloni hosts von der Leyen in Lampedusa, Salvini on Sunday has invited French far-right leader Marine Le Pen to an annual League rally in the northern Italian town of Pontida.
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