Lampedusa has seen an influx of migrants with 7,000 people arriving in two days, prompting its mayor and the United Nations refugee agency to warn the Italian island is becoming overwhelmed.
The island – whose population is under 7,000 – has long been a first port of call for people crossing from north Africa and has been a flashpoint in Europe’s migration crisis.
Mayor Filippo Mannino on Thursday said the migrant crisis had reached a “point of no return.”
“In the past 48 hours, around 7,000 people have arrived on my island, an island that has always welcomed and saved in its arms,” Mannino told Italy’s RTL 102.5 radio.
“Now we have reached a point of no return where the role played by this small rock in the middle of the Mediterranean has been put into crisis by the dramatic nature of this phenomenon.”
The UN refugee agency’s (UNHCR) Representative for Italy, the Holy See and San Marino, Chiara Cardoletti, said Friday the situation on Lampedusa is “critical,” and moving people off the island is “an absolute priority.”
Cardoletti said that “urgent action” was underway to “bring the island back to normality” and that authorities had transferred around 5,000 people off the island in the last 28 hours.
Many of the latest people to arrive have fled political instability in Tunisia. In previous years, most came from Libya and had been rescued by NGO charity vessels and Italian rescuers rather than reaching the island, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The group now fears numbers will rise even further following the catastrophic floods in Libya.
On Wednesday, Germany said it informed Italy of its decision to postpone “until further notice” its intake of migrants under a European voluntary solidarity plan, according to the country’s interior ministry. That program oversees the relocation of asylum-seekers for a year and is aimed at easing pressure on EU borders.
Separately, France’s Interior Minister Gerard Darmanin said earlier this week that due to “the destabilization of Libya and Tunisia, which has accelerated,” more migrants were arriving at the French and Italian border.
Many of those arriving in Lampedusa, and who are transferred to the Italian mainland, try to cross the Ventimiglia border into the French seaside town of Menton.
Darmanin who was speaking from Menton on Tuesday, said “we have a 100% increase in flows on the Italian border, which obviously affects the Alpes-Maritimes department as well as all the departments in the Alps,” announcing “very significant reinforcements” to tackle the situation at the border and “fight illegal immigration.”
“I look at our German friends, they have four times as many asylum applications as we do, which is proof that when you put a lot of resources at the border you also limit attractiveness of our country,” Darmanin said.
“A large proportion of the people who cross the Italian border here want to go to Great Britain, which is also an incentive to negotiate with our British friends and in particular develop a European treaty between the European Union and Great Britain,” he added.
Rosario Valastro, president of Red Cross Italy, whose facility on Lampedusa hosts thousands despite being built for 500 people, said he was expecting some relief after this week’s surge.
“Activity continues incessantly at the Lampedusa hotspot where 3,800 people are present this morning,” the Red Cross said in a statement Friday.
“The over 130 operators and volunteers of the Italian Red Cross are doing beyond the impossible to ensure basic necessities. Yesterday, 5,000 lunch meals and 5,000 dinner meals were produced. We are tested but operational,” Valastro said.
“For us, people come before anything else,” he added.
As of September 14, 125,928 people had arrived in Italy, according to the Interior Ministry, a number that’s in line with those from 2016, when migrant numbers surged in the wake of the Syrian war. However, Flavio Di Giacomo, from IOM, said the number of arrivals in Lampedusa now was much higher than before.
A lack of Libyan Coast Guard presence due to the floods, and the high number of migrants in Libya (a transit country for migration to Europe) kept in detention centers who are now desperate to leave, could also affect arrivals in the coming weeks.
This week, Italy’s Minister of Infrastructure Matteo Salvini called the arrivals “an act of war” during a press conference with Italy’s Foreign Press Association.
He suggested the arrivals were being “orchestrated” and said the government would “stop at nothing” to curtail the arrivals, applauding Italian PM Giorgia Meloni’s attempts to negotiate with Tunisia.
In July, Meloni, along with EU chief Ursula Von der Leyen, traveled to Tunisia with a promise of investment funds as an incentive to stop the boats, including 105 million euros ($111 million) dedicated to stop smugglers, but the EU this week largely stalled the plan in Brussels.
Meloni, under pressure from within her own coalition on migrant numbers, has not commented directly on Lampedusa, but told RAI on Thursday that relocation was not the issue – stopping the arrivals was.