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EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen Alamy Stock Photo

EU Chief Ursula von der Leyen to visit Italian island struggling with migrant arrivals

Italian Deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini called the migrant arrivals an “act of war”.

URSUALA VON DER Leyen is set to visit the Italian island of Lampedusa tomorrow alongside the country’s prime minister Giorgia Meloni. The high-profile visit follows a recent surge of migrant arrivals there, the European Commission has said.

Meloni has called on the EU to help relieve the pressure after some 8,500 people landed by boats over three days this week on Lampedusa, just 145 kilometres off the coast of Tunisia.

“President von der Leyen will be travelling to Lampedusa tomorrow on the invitation of Italian PM Meloni,” European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer posted online.

An Italian official confirmed the visit, but details were still being finalised.

The spike in arrivals has rekindled the debate over how Europe shares responsibility for asylum seekers.

Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost island, has long been a landing point for migrant boats from North Africa. But this week its migration centre – built for fewer than 400 people – was overwhelmed.

Between Monday and Wednesday, around 8,500 people – more than the entire local population – arrived in 199 boats, according to the UN migration agency.

Images of thousands of people sleeping in the open air, scaling the perimeter fence and wandering around the town sparked anger among members of Italy’s hard-right government.

Deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini called the arrivals an “act of war”, and yesterday, Meloni urged the European Union to do more to help.

“The migratory pressure that Italy has been experiencing since the beginning of the year is unsustainable,” she said in a video message broadcast by her office.

The cause of the increase, she said, was the “difficult international situation” in Africa.

Von der Leyen – with Meloni’s strong backing – struck an agreement with Tunisia in July aimed at curbing the flow of irregular migration from the North African country.

The memorandum of understanding signed by the EU and Tunisia provides financial supports, coastguard funding and training. In return, Tunisian authorities ensure that boats carrying refugees don’t successfully leave their shores. A similar agreement is already in place between the EU and Libya.

Also this year, EU countries agreed to provide southern border countries like Greece and Italy with assistance in handling the large numbers of arrivals. Due to an EU rule called the Dublin Regulation, refugees must remain the EU country they first arrive in once granted asylum. 

Under thee deal, member states can opt to take in more refugees to alleviate some of the burden on Greece and Italy, or they can pay a sum of money to those states. The Irish Government decided to pay. 

Relations between Tunisia and the EU took a backwards step this week however, when a delegation of MEPs were denied entry to the country before they left on a diplomatic mission. The denial of entry came after criticism from left parties in Parliament of the Tunisian government’s authoritarian policies regarding migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. 

In France, members of the far right said the government should not allow any migrants from Lampedusa across the border – to which President Emmanuel Macron responded by calling for European solidarity.

Earlier this week, Germany confirmed it had stopped accepting migrants living in Italy under the European solidarity plan aimed at easing pressure on EU border nations.

The EU is pushing to overhaul its rules on how to handle the thousands of migrants heading to the continent, but consensus among member states has not materialised. 

While southern states have long called for more cooperation and support from fellow EU members but right-wing governments in Poland and Hungary have strongly opposed an agreement.

Tunisia has become the most common point of departure for those attempting to cross the Mediterranean from Africa, overtaking Libya this year. 

Lampedusa, given its proximity to Tunisia, has been the arrival point for most of those who have chosen to make the perilous voyage. In August, over 40 people died in a shipwreck off the coast of the Italian island. 

In total, 2338 people have either died or gone missing in the Mediterranean this year, according to the UN’s Missing Migrant project.  

- With additional reporting from AFP 2023

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