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Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has appealed for greater European support as her country confronts a surge of people fleeing north Africa, amid growing tensions between Rome and other EU capitals over migration policy.
More than 12,000 people have reached Italy in the past week, mostly to the island of Lampedusa, authorities said, with thousands more awaiting to make the relatively short journey from Tunisia’s port city of Sfax to the Italian island.
Authorities have struggled to ferry the new arrivals off the island to Sicily and other parts of Italy amid concerns about deteriorating conditions at Lampedusa’s overcrowded migrants reception facility which was designed to accommodate just 400 people. The local population in Lampedusa is 6,000.
Solidarity from other EU member states remains scarce amid continued criticism from France and Germany that Italy fails to register the new arrivals who then travel on and apply for asylum in other countries, in breach of EU rules. France this week tightened its borders with Italy, while Germany said it was suspending its voluntary acceptance of migrants from Italy, only to reverse course a few days later due to the surge of arrivals in Lampedusa.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and migration commissioner Ylva Johansson visited Lampedusa with Meloni on Sunday.
Von der Leyen’s decision to travel to Lampedusa comes as her first term as commission president is entering the final months ahead of EU elections in June when she is expected to seek another four years in office.
The island has become emblematic of Europe’s struggle to prevent illegal migrants from reaching its shores and the German politician’s trip underscores the role that migration plays in the EU’s political debate, with anti-immigrant sentiment being stoked by several far right parties, including Meloni’s coalition partner, the League.
The centre-right political family von der Leyen is a member of has also moved to the right in the past few years, emphasising migrant returns and border security, in a bid to prevent a repeat of the 2015-2016 migration wave that pushed the union to the brink.
Von der Leyen said she had offered the Italian government additional manpower to help register and fingerprint new arrivals, and support to move the migrants off the island. But she also urged other EU members to accommodate more of the migrants now arriving in Italy.
“Migration is a European challenge and it requires a European answer,” von der Leyen said. “We will decide who comes to the European Union and under what circumstances — not the smugglers and traffickers”.
The increased influx is a political headache for Meloni, who was elected on a promise to stop the flow of illegal migration to Italy. Instead, the number of those arriving on Italian shores has surged to more than 128,600 so far this year, up from around 66,200 at the same time last year.
Speaking alongside the two EU officials, Meloni urged other EU capitals to help.
“These are the borders of Italy for sure, but they are the borders of Europe,” Meloni said.
“This massive flow of immigrants is something that inevitably requires the involvement of everybody. It’s going to affect the frontier countries, certainly, but it will soon affect all the other countries too.”
The EU signed a controversial deal with Tunisia this summer to give the country €100mn for equipment to step up border enforcement and prevent illegal departures by sea. But the funds have not yet been delivered.
Meloni’s coalition partner, Matteo Salvini, deputy prime minister and leader of the League, who was making a joint appearance at a rally in Italy with far right French leader Marine Le Pen on Sunday — has described the deluge of new arrivals as “an act of war”.
“I am not a conspiracy theorist, but I don’t believe in fate,” Salvini told foreign reporters last week. “I think it’s something absolutely wanted, organised, planned and financed to create difficulties for an unconventional government.”
Meloni has tried to deter prospective migrants from attempting the dangerous crossing, warning that Italy planned to get tougher with illegal migrants and step up deportations of those whose asylum claims are rejected.
“If you enter Italy illegally, you will be retained and repatriated,” she said in a social media video released on Friday. “Our situation does not allow us to act differently.”
Italy is now planning to create additional centres in remote locations to hold more asylum seekers whose claims are rejected while attempting to repatriate them. Italy has repatriated just over 3,000 illegal migrants so far this year, compared with 2,663 in the same period last year. Around 4,000 illegal migrants were repatriated from Italy in total last year.
Additional reporting by Henry Foy in London