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Von der Leyen and Meloni arrive on Lampedusa Cecilia Fabiano/LaPressececiliafabiano
Mediterranean migration

Ursula von der Leyen and PM Giorgia Meloni tour migrant centre on Italian island of Lampedusa

Meloni has pledged tougher measures and is calling for a naval blockade of North Africa.

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 increases, for decades.

Television images showed Meloni speaking to islanders expressing their frustrations; she told them the government is working on a robust response, including 50 million euro 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 showed hundreds surging towards the gate yesterday 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 yesterday. 

In the face of the crisis, 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 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 Meloni’s far-right-led government.

“Irregular migration is a European challenge and it needs a European answer,” von der Leyen said during her visit, offering a 10-point plan to help Rome deal with the crisis, while Meloni said her government is doing “everything possible”. 

It is “the future that Europe wants for itself that is at stake here, because the future of Europe depends on Europe’s capacity to face major challenges,” added Meloni who has called on Italy’s EU partners to take more of the migrant burden.

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 today.

Most of the migrants arriving this week departed from Tunisia.

Transfers of migrants to Sicily and the mainland have not kept up with the flow of new arrivals, although further transfers were expected to be made Sunday, the Red Cross said.

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.

- With reporting from AFP

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