Nearly 7,000 migrants arrived on Lampedusa on boats from Tunisia in single day
European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen pledged the swift return of "irregular" migrants and a crackdown on the "brutal business" of migrant smuggling on Sunday during a visit with Italy's prime minister to a tiny fishing island overwhelmed with nearly 7,000 arrivals in a single day this week.
Tensions have spiked on Lampedusa, an island closer to Tunisia than the Italian mainland, with residents expressing impatience with the constant flow of migrants trying to reach Europe from North Africa arriving on their shores — not just this week but for decades.
Migrants who spoke to CBC News said they were fleeing sectarian violence and domestic abuse, among other issues, and with little resources to support them on Lampedusa, they must rely on the benevolence of locals for food and water.
"We will decide who comes to the European Union, and under what circumstances. Not the smugglers," von der Leyen declared after touring the island's hot spot. The Red Cross said 1,500 migrants remained in the centre built to accommodate 400 people. With no space at the centre, many migrants have been sleeping in cots on the side of the road.
In the face of the new crisis on Lampedusa, far-right Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has pledged tougher measures and is calling for a naval blockade of North Africa to prevent migrants on smugglers' boats from departing.
Von der Leyen's vow to crack down on migrant smuggling and help Italy cope with the spike in arrivals as part of a 10-point plan appeared to stop short of a naval blockade. She instead offered support for "exploring options to expand existing naval missions in the Mediterranean, or to work on new ones."
The plan also includes speeding funds to Tunisia as part of a deal with the EU to block departures in exchange for aid, helping Italy accelerate asylum requests and setting up humanitarian corridors in countries of origin to discourage illegal routes.
Record number of migrants overwhelm Italian island
This tiny Italian island isn't equipped to keep up with the thousands of migrants arriving from North Africa. An estimated 8,000 people have flooded Lampedusa in the past week, doubling the island's population and straining resources.
She also pledged the Frontex border agency's support in ensuring "the swift return of migrants to their country of origin" who don't qualify to stay in the EU, working with the countries of origin.
Von der Leyen also called on European nations to accept voluntary transfers — a frequent source of discord — as the EU dispatches experts to help manage and register the high number of migrants arriving in Italy.
"It is very important for me [to be here] because irregular migration is a European challenge and it needs a European answer. So we are in this together," she said.
Visit called 'gesture of responsibility'
Meloni, who has softened her once-combative stance against the EU since coming to power last year, framed von der Leyen's visit as a "gesture of responsibility of Europe toward itself," and not just a sign of solidarity with Italy.
"If we don't work seriously all together to fight the illegal departures, the numbers of this phenomenon will not only overwhelm the border countries, but all of the others," Meloni said.
She continued to press for an "efficient" naval blockade, noting that previous EU missions were not properly carried out, resulting in a Mediterranean deployment that Meloni alleges encouraged smuggler departures — a contention that is disputed by migrant experts.
The Italian government intends to quickly activate a system for repatriating migrants who are not eligible to stay in Europe as part of measures to be decided by Monday, Meloni said.
Save the Children, an international NGO, expressed hopes that the visit by the two leaders would bring concrete responses, and it called for a European structure to search for and rescue migrants in danger at sea.
Televised images showed Meloni speaking to islanders expressing their frustrations, telling them the government was working on a robust response, including more than $70 million Cdn to help the island.
New arrivals have also chafed at the long wait to be transferred to the mainland. TV footage on Saturday showed hundreds surging toward the gate as police used shields to hold them back. In other shots, individual migrants climbed over the fence of the migrant centre.
The crisis is challenging unity within the EU and also Meloni's government.
Deputy Prime Minister 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 hosted French right-wing leader Marine Le Pen at an annual League rally in northern Italy later Sunday.
In her remarks, Le Pen lashed out at "those leaders who don't realize there are signs of alarm and danger from the massive arrival of migrants on Lampedusa," which she said created "trouble for the population when leaders don't take action immediately to face this giant challenge."
Most of the migrants arriving this week departed from Tunisia on small, unseaworthy boats.
The number of migrants making the perilous sea journey to Italy has nearly doubled from last year and is on pace to reach the record numbers of 2016, when most migrants left from Libya.
With files from Megan Williams
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