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18 September 2023

EU and Italian leaders tour Lampedusa amid surge in migrant arrivals

18 September 2023

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Italian premier Giorgia Meloni have toured a migrant centre on the island of Lampedusa that was overwhelmed with nearly 7,000 arrivals in a 24-hour period this week.

Tensions have spiked on the Italian island in the days since, with residents expressing impatience with the constant flow of migrants trying to reach Europe from North Africa arriving on their shores, with occasional spikes, for decades.

Television images showed Ms Meloni speaking to islanders expressing their frustrations; she told them the government is working on a robust response, including 50 million euro (43 million) to help the island, but a heckler in the crowd said it is not just money they need.

New arrivals have also criticised the long wait to be transferred to the mainland; TV footage on Saturday showed hundreds surging towards the gate as police used shields to hold them back.

In other footage, single migrants climbed over the fence of the migrant centre. Some 2,000 remained there this weekend after another 500 arrived on Saturday.

In the face of the crisis, Ms Meloni has pledged tougher measures and is calling for a naval blockade of North Africa to prevent migrants on smugglers’ boats from departing. Her interior minister on Saturday held a video call with counterparts from the European Union including France, Germany and Spain to seek a common line.

The crisis is challenging unity within the EU and also Ms Meloni’s far-right-led government.

Vice premier Matteo Salvini, head of the populist, right-wing League, has challenged the efficacy of an EU-Tunisia deal that was meant to halt departures in exchange for economic aid. He is hosting French right-wing leader Marine Le Pen at an annual League rally in northern Italy later on Sunday.

Most of the migrants arriving this week departed from Tunisia.

The number of migrants making the perilous sea journey to Italy has doubled over last year and is on pace to reach record numbers hit in 2016.

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