European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visited the Italian island of Lampedusa on the Mediterranean Sea on Sunday, 17 September. President von der Leyen was invited to the island by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni of Italy to assess the dire state of the overwhelmed migrant reception centre there, which she described as being under ‘unsustainable pressure’.
Lampedusa is one of the southernmost points of the European Union on the continent, being only around 140 kilometres (87 miles) off of the shores of Tunisia. Because of its proximity to the African nation, it is under constant pressure from the incoming waves of illegal immigrants.
In just the three days prior to von der Leyen’s visit, 8,000 migrants arrived on the island of only 5,000 residents,
usually in small boats through the sea. The local migrant reception centre is now forced to house and care for about 2,500 people despite being designed to hold 400, according to the Italian Red Cross.
126,000 migrants have arrived in Italy so far this year, which is about twice as many as in the same period last year, as per the BBC’s reporting. That is despite a right-wing Meloni administration being elected last year, who vowed to crack down on the masses of foreign nationals coming into the country illegally.
This influx of immigrants prompted the local residents to take to the streets in protest. They worry about, among other things, the potential increase in crime the incoming masses may bring. It only added fuel to the fire that news broke that, allegedly, the Italian government’s response was to set up additional tents at the reception centre. The angered crowd even went as far as going to the commercial port of the island, and preventing the ship they suspected was carrying the new tents from docking. One of the demands of the protesters is that migrants be taken to mainland Italy and off of their island.
One of the concerned citizens of the isle told the Reuters news agency:
‘I have two children at home. In the past years, I did not care about this issue. But now I have an instinct of protection for my children because I don’t know what will happen to Lampedusa in the future.’
Meanwhile, the visiting von der Leyen claimed that illegal immigration ‘is a European challenge and needs a European answer,’ then adding that ‘the future of Europe depends on its ability to tackle epoch-making challenges of our time, and the challenge of illegal immigration is for sure one of them,’ as quoted by the BBC.
PM Meloni was willing to be more specific about her proposed solutions.
She suggested that distributing migrants across EU Member States, forced by migrant quotas, is not the proper answer, instead, she would like to prevent attempted illegal border crossings by sea,
even proposing a naval blockade by the EU to achieve that.
She also called on the Union to ‘immediately accelerate’ the deal it made with Tunisia back in July. According to the agreement, the EU provides financial aid to the tune of around €1 billion in exchange for the African nation cracking down on human smugglers and illegal migrants on their way to Europe.
On Monday, the Italian government enacted new measures which dictate that any new migrant must remain within the confines of a reception centre for 18 months after their arrival, during which time they must apply for a legal refugee or immigrant status. After the waiting period, those who got their application granted are free to move about in Italy, while those who got theirs rejected will be deported.
This is significantly stricter than the previous policy in place until now, which allowed the new arrivals to move freely while their application is being processed. The Italian government is hoping that this new, stricter approach will serve as a deterrent which will lead to a decrease in migration into Italy.