(Lampedusa) The small Italian island of Lampedusa is struggling on Thursday to cope with the influx of migrants from North Africa, after welcoming more than 7,000 people, the equivalent of the local population.
The reception center, built to house fewer than 400 people, is overwhelmed, with men, women and children forced to sleep outside on makeshift plastic beds, many wrapped in survival blankets.
Good weather conditions have pushed candidates for exile out to sea in recent days: more than 5,000 people landed on the Italian coast on Tuesday, almost exclusively in Lampedusa, and nearly 3,000 on Wednesday, according to the Interior Ministry.
According to Matteo Villa, from the ISPI think tank, the number of arrivals in 48 hours is an “absolute record”.
The Italian Red Cross (CRI), which manages the Lampedusa reception center, is “doing the impossible, and more than the impossible”, reacted its president, Rosario Valastro, in a press release on Thursday.
The town declared a local state of emergency and tensions erupted on Wednesday during the CRI’s food distribution.
Located less than 150 km from the Tunisian coast, Lampedusa is one of the first stopover points for migrants crossing the Mediterranean.
2000 deaths at sea
Several young migrants went to the historic center of Lampedusa, where an AFP photographer found some of them eating ice cream. Several migrants said they were hungry and others said they had no money, so some restaurants refused them entry.
But other establishments offered them free food and locals and tourists also paid for meals.
Most migrants are picked up at sea on makeshift boats by the coast guard who take them to the port of Lampedusa.
But many die on the way: according to the UN migration agency, more than 2,000 people have died this year during the crossing between North Africa, Italy and Malta.
The last known victim is a five-month-old baby, who is believed to have fallen into the water early Wednesday while part of a group being brought to shore.
For years, the Lampedusa migrant reception center has struggled to cope with the number of arrivals, with humanitarian organizations reporting a lack of water, food and medical care.
And Italy criticizes its European partners for not mobilizing sufficiently to help it manage these flows. Germany announced this week that it was no longer accepting migrants from Italy, and France announced the sending of reinforcements to fight illegal immigration at the border with Italy.
Some 5,000 people were to be transferred by the end of Thursday to Sicily, where there are larger reception centers.
The far-right Italian government recently allocated 45 million euros to Lampedusa to help the island better manage the migrant situation.
But the head of government Giorgia Meloni, elected a year ago promising to put an end to mass immigration, is asking for help from the European Union.
Brussels “is in close contact” with Rome on the situation, a Commission spokesperson assured Thursday, specifying that Italy had already received 14 million euros in European funds to deal with this situation.
Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, head of the (anti-immigration) League, said he saw these massive arrivals as “an act of war” against Italy. The left-wing opposition, for its part, joked about the failure of the Meloni-Salvini policy, who had pledged during the 2022 legislative campaign to “stop” migrant boats.
Marion Maréchal, head of the list of the French Reconquête party, a supporter of Giorgia Meloni’s post-fascist Fratelli d’Italia formation, was expected Thursday evening in Lampedusa.
“Lampedusa is not only the border of Italy, but of all of Europe,” she said before her departure.
Nearly 124,000 migrants have arrived on Italian shores since the start of the year, compared to 65,500 during the same period last year.
However, the figures have not yet surpassed those of 2016, when more than 181,000 people, many of them Syrians fleeing war, arrived in Europe.