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Italian island struggles as migrant surge doubles population

Migrant arrivals in Spain nearly doubled in 2023
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The tiny Italian island of Lampedusa struggled Thursday to cope with a surge in migrant boats from North Africa after numbers peaked at 7,000 people — equivalent to the entire local population.

The island’s reception centre, built to house fewer than 400 people, was overwhelmed with men, women and children forced to sleep outside on makeshift plastic cots, many wrapped in metallic emergency blankets.

Good weather has seen a surge in arrivals across Italy in recent days, with more than 5,000 people landing across the country on Tuesday, and almost 3,000 on Wednesday, according to updated interior ministry figures.

Many arrive first on Lampedusa, located just 90 miles (around 145 kilometres) off the coast of Tunisia, where the Italian Red Cross said late Wednesday it was hosting 7,000 people.

Matteo Villa, from the ISPI think tank, said the number of arrivals over 48 hours on the island was an “absolute record”.

Island authorities declared a local state of emergency, and tensions broke out on Wednesday as food was being distributed at the centre, causing police to intervene.

On Thursday, hundreds more migrants arrived but many more were transferred off the island for processing in Sicily, and the Red Cross said the situation was “more under control”.


– Queuing for ice-cream –


Overnight, cots were set up inside and outside the Lampedusa centre for people to sleep, while during the day others crouched on the floor in the shade between the buildings.

Young men ventured into Lampedusa’s historic town centre, some scaling the high perimeter fence.

On Wednesday evening, an AFP photographer found some of them queueing for ice-cream. Several said they were hungry.

Few had any money, and some restaurants turned them away. But other establishments offered food for free, or residents and tourists paid for them.

Most of the migrants arriving on Lampedusa are picked up at sea by the coastguard from rickety boats.

Many do not survive the journey. More than 2,000 people have died this year crossing between North Africa and Italy and Malta, according to the UN migration agency.

The latest victim was a five-month-old baby, who reportedly fell into the water early Wednesday as part of a group being brought to shore.


– Critical situation –


For years, Lampedusa’s so-called migrant “hotspot” has struggled to cope with the arrivals, with humanitarian organisations reporting a lack of water, food and medical care.

The Italian Red Cross took over in June promising to offer a more “dignified” welcome.

“The situation is certainly complex and gradually, we are trying to return to normality,” Francesca Basile, the organisation’s head of migration, said Thursday morning.

“We provided everyone with food and distributed dinner last night and today too everyone will receive what they need,” she added.

Italy’s hard-right government allocated 45 million euros ($48 million) to Lampedusa earlier this month to help the island better manage the migrant situation.

But Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, elected one year ago on a pledge to end mass migration, has called for more European Union help.

The European Commission noted in response that it had already provided 14 million euros in emergency assistance to help manage arrivals, alongside hundreds of border, security and immigration officials on the ground.

“We stand ready to support Italy and this is what we are doing,” a spokeswoman said.

Almost 126,000 migrants have arrived on Italy’s shores so far this year, up from 66,500 in the same period last year.

The numbers have yet to surpass those of 2016, when more than 181,000 arrived during a surge in irregular migration to Europe, many of them Syrians escaping war.

But migration is a major political issue, especially ahead of European Parliament elections next June.

Meloni’s deputy, Matteo Salvini of the anti-immigration League party, said the arrivals were an “act of war” against Italy.

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Agence France-Presse (AFP) is a French international news agency headquartered in Paris, France. Founded in 1835 as Havas, it is the world's oldest news agency.

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