EU scrambles to address Italy island migrant surge
This handout picture taken and released on September 17, 2023 by Italian agency Ansa, shows the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (L) and Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni (R) during a press conference at the Italian island of Lampedusa. The Prime Minister of Italy and the President of the European Commission arrived on the island of Lampedusa as tensions rise over an increase in migrant arrivals. (Photo by Handout / ANSA / AFP)
(AFP) - The European Union said Saturday that its top official Ursula von der Leyen will head for the Italian island of Lampedusa, after Rome called on Brussels for help after a surge in migrant arrivals.
The president of the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, will visit the island on Sunday with Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, officials from both sides said.
Earlier Saturday, the interior ministers from Italy, France, Germany and Spain discussed the crisis, on the phone, with the EU's home affairs commissioner.
French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, who conferred Friday with his Italian and German counterparts, will himself head to Lampedusa in the coming days, French government sources said late Saturday.
The sources revealed that Meloni and French President Emmanuel Macron had spoken and agreed on the need to "strengthen cooperation at the European level ... to find effective, immediate and longer-term solutions to this crisis."
French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said earlier that the time had come "first and foremost to show solidarity with Italy" and "mobilise" the European Union.
Meloni has urged the EU to act to relieve "unsustainable" pressure on Italy after thousands of people landed in boats over three days this week on Lampedusa, just 90 miles (145 kilometres) off the coast of Tunisia.
Germany, which earlier this week said it had stopped accepting migrants living in Italy under a European solidarity plan aimed at sharing out responsibility, said via an interior ministry spokesman that Berlin had offered humanitarian support, adding the voluntary solidarity mechanism was not in fact suspended.
The spokesman said no interviews were currently taking place to accept new migrants from Italy but added they could be resumed at any time.
Lampedusa, Italy's southernmost island, has long been a landing point for migrant boats from North Africa. But this week its migration centre, built to house fewer than 400 people, was overwhelmed.
Between Monday and Wednesday, around 8,500 people -- more than the entire local population -- arrived in 199 boats, according to the UN migration agency.
- 'Unsustainable' -
Images of people sleeping in the open air, scaling the perimeter fence and wandering around the town, sparked anger among members of Italy's hard-right government.
The congestion eased as officials transferred thousands of migrants from the tiny island of Lampedusa to Sicily on Friday -- but as hundreds more were being moved across on Saturday morning, there were further arrivals by sea.
But the Italian Red Cross said 2,500 people remained at the overcrowded migration centre.
Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini has called the arrivals an "act of war" and on Friday, Meloni urged the European Union to do more to help.
"The migratory pressure that Italy has been experiencing since the beginning of the year is unsustainable," she said, urging von der Leyen to visit Lampedusa and asking European Council President Charles Michel to place the matter on the agenda for October's EU summit.
Von der Leyen -- with Meloni's strong backing -- struck an agreement with Tunisia in July aimed at curbing the flow of irregular migration from the North African country.
- Arrivals double -
Tunisia is a main embarcation point for migrants making the perilous sea-crossing to Europe each year.
More than 127,000 migrants have arrived on Italy's shores so far this year, almost double the same period last year.
Over 2,000 people have died this year crossing from North Africa to Italy and Malta, according to the UN migration agency.
The EU is pushing to overhaul its rules on how to handle the migrant flow.
In France, members of the far right say Paris should not allow any migrants from Lampedusa across the border from Italy.
Southern countries facing large numbers of arrivals have long pressed other EU states to take more.
But right-wing governments in Poland and Hungary have strongly opposed an agreement.
© Agence France-Presse