ROME (AP) — Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni vowed Friday to take “extraordinary measures" to deal with an influx of migrants, including calling anew for a naval blockade of North Africa, after a week in which more than 6,000 people arrived within a day on the island of Lampedusa from Tunisia.
Meloni invited the head of the European Commission to visit Lampedusa with her to see the conditions firsthand and called for a new European Union migration deal with Tunisia to be put into effect.
In a video distributed by her office, Meloni said that Europe needs a “paradigm change” to cope with a series of factors in Africa — conflict, instability, soaring grain prices and climate crises — that she warned could spur millions of people to risk their lives to come to Europe.
“Obviously, Italy and Europe cannot welcome this massive influx of people, especially when these migrant flows are being managed by unscrupulous traffickers,” she said.
Lampedusa, which is closer to Africa than the Italian mainland, has been overwhelmed this week by thousands of people hoping to reach Europe from Tunisia, which has replaced Libya as the main base for migrant smuggling operations in the Mediterranean.
The Italian Red Cross said that around 700 new arrivals had been transferred off Lampedusa on Thursday and 2,500 more transfers were planned for Friday to try to relieve pressure on the island’s refugee center, which has a normal capacity of around 400 people. As of Friday morning, the center was hosting about 3,800 people, down significantly from the more than 6,000 registered this week, the Red Cross said in a statement.
The influx has occurred despite an EU-inked accord with Tunisia to stem the smuggling operations in exchange for economic assistance. Meloni called for the accord to be concretized and the promised EU funds transferred to Tunis.
The arrivals have put pressure on Meloni, who came into power as head of a right-wing government last year promising to crack down on migration. With an European Parliament election next year, Meloni’s conservative coalition partner, the League Party, has increased criticism of the EU-Tunisia deal, saying the increasing numbers of migrants showed it clearly had failed.
Meloni proposed a series of measures to crack down on migrants and traffickers that she said would be tabled at an upcoming Cabinet meeting. She warned would-be refugees that they would be detained and repatriated if they come illegally.
“Our situation doesn't allow us to do any differently,” she said.
League leader Matteo Salvini is due to host French far-right leader Marine Le Pen at a rally this weekend in his northern home base of Pontida. On Friday, Le Pen's niece, French far-right politician Marion Marechal, was on Lampedusa to show her support to Italy, which she said had been abandoned by Europe to deal with migrants on its own.
“I came to support the Italian people and government, because Lampedusa today and the Italian borders are the borders of the whole of Europe,” Marechal told Italian reporters. “We have to change EU policy to help the Italian government, which today is alone in facing this crisis."
According to Interior Ministry statistics, nearly 126,000 people have arrived in Italy so far by boat this year compared to 66,000 this time last year and 42,000 in 2021. If the trend continues, this year could be on track to near the record in 2016, when by the end of September about 132,000 migrants had arrived. The year 2016 holds the recent record for migrant sea arrivals with a total of 181,000 people.
Follow AP’s coverage of migration issues at https://apnews.com/hub/migration
Nicole Winfield, The Associated Press