LAMPEDUSA, Italy (Reuters): France agreed on Friday to work with Italy to get European Union support to stem a migrant crisis that has overwhelmed the Italian island of Lampedusa.
The island, situated in the Mediterranean between Tunisia, Malta and the larger Italian island of Sicily, has become a first port of call for many migrants seeking to enter the EU.
Around 7,000 have landed there this week, more than the island’s permanent population, overwhelming its ability to respond.
French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters: “I want to say very sincerely to all our Italian friends that I believe it is the responsibility of the European Union, the entire European Union, to stand by Italy.”
His interior minister, Gerald Darmanin, tweeted that he had spoken to his Italian counterpart, adding: “We agreed to work together within the European Union in the coming hours to strongly reinforce the prevention of immigrant departures and the fight against people traffickers.”
The arrivals are a political problem for Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s right-wing government, which has pledged to control immigration. Nearly 126,000 have been reported so far this year, almost double the figure by the same date in 2022.
Other right-wing politicians have picked up on the issue, with Marion Marechal, niece of French far-right leader Marine Le Pen, visiting Lampedusa on Friday.
Meloni helped the EU to strike a deal with Tunisia in July to stem migration flows in return for funding, but it has not yet been implemented. A deal with Turkey in 2016 helped to reduce the number of migrants arriving by that route.
Lampedusa’s “hotspot” reception centre had almost 7,000 migrants at one point this week, against an official capacity of 400. Officials set up camp beds outdoors.
UN URGES EU TO SHARE OUT MIGRATION BURDEN
“I hope the situation improves and that they let us leave from here because the living conditions here are not easy. We sleep in the open air, in the sun and in the cold,” said Claudine Nsoe, a 29-year-old migrant from Cameroon.
Holding her 18-month-old son Prince on her lap, she said it had taken a week to get to Lampedusa from Libya with two children.
Migrants were gradually being transferred to the bigger island of Sicily by boat and plane, and numbers in the centre fell to 3,800 on Friday, the Italian Red Cross said.
After tensions and scuffles inside the centre, footage from Thursday night published on social media showed some migrants mixing with locals and tourists and dancing to music on Lampedusa’s main street.
The U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) joined calls by U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres for the EU to share out the burden of rescuing migrants and eventually settling those who received refugee status – one of the most controversial issues among member states.
In Geneva, UNHCR spokesperson Matthew Saltmarsh said the migrants were traumatised, exhausted and in need of food, shelter and medical care, after a surge in crossings seemingly been driven by calm seas and the economic and social turbulence in Tunisia and Libya.
“It can’t just be on those frontline states like Italy that receive the initial arrivals to have to accommodate them for the longer term … We think that now’s the time for other countries, other states, other regions to try to support the Italians and to support the people of Lampedusa,” he said.