By Yara Nardi
LAMPEDUSA, Italy (Reuters) -The small Italian island of Lampedusa is being overwhelmed by the number of migrants arriving on its shores, its mayor said on Thursday, after thousands of people landed from North Africa on flimsy boats over the past two days.
Lampedusa sits in the Mediterranean between Tunisia, Malta and the larger Italian island of Sicily and is a first port of call for many migrants seeking to reach the European Union.
“In the past 48 hours, around 7,000 people have arrived in Lampedusa, which has always welcomed them with open arms,” mayor Filippo Mannino told Italy’s RTL 102.5 radio.
“However, we have now reached a point of no return and the island is in crisis,” he said.
“Europe and the Italian state must step in immediately with a rapid support operation and swift transfer of people.”
The island normally has a population of just over 6,000.
A total of 387 migrants disembarked from nine craft on Thursday, Italian news agency Agi reported, adding that they were believed to have sailed from the Tunisian port of Sfax.
The arrivals are a headache for Giorgia Meloni’s right-wing government which took power last October with a promise to crack down on immigration.
Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini decried a lack of support from fellow EU members, calling the arrivals “an act of war” and “the death of Europe”.
Meloni said at a conference in Budapest that some legal migration could benefit Europe economically, but could not be a solution to the continent’s demographic crisis.
The EU’s migration commissioner, Ylva Johansson, said on social media platform X: “We are seeing a really challenging situation in Lampedusa. This is a European matter that needs a European response.”
Lampedusa has a migrant reception centre with an official capacity of only 400. It was housing an estimated 4,000 people on Wednesday. Dozens of migrants jumped the fence to escape the overcrowded facility, where a scuffle broke out.
Authorities are organising some transfers to Sicily to ease the situation. Migrants could be seen on the quayside, with towels over their heads to shield themselves from the late summer sun, as they waited to board ferries.
Naby Bangoura, from Guinea, said after his arrival on a boat from Tunisia: “Italy is a good place, we have been well received and given things to eat.”
He said he had been at sea for two days after setting sail on a boat carrying around 35 people.
Preliminary data from Spain, another country on the EU’s southern flank, showed the number of migrant arrivals to the Canary Islands more than trebled to 2,891 people in the first two weeks of September.
Spain says instability in Senegal is one of the factors fuelling the increase.
The EU border agency FRONTEX said: “The Central Mediterranean remains the most active route into the EU this year, with almost 114,300 detections reported by national authorities in the first eight months of 2023. This is the highest total on this route for this period since 2016.”
It added: “Increased migratory pressure may persist in the coming months with smugglers offering lower prices departing from Libya and Tunisia amid fierce competition among the criminal groups.”
Matteo Villa, a migration data analysis expert from the ISPI think-tank in Milan, said Lampedusa was under particular pressure because 90% of migrant boats in the last three months came from Tunisia, the closest African country, and because there are fewer search and rescue missions intercepting migrants at sea.
Meloni’s government has restricted the activities of charity rescue boats, impounding their vessels, banning them from conducting multiple rescues and making them travel longer distances to disembark migrants.
Italy has sought to improve ties with Tunisia and in July Tunis and the European Union signed a pact aimed at stemming migrant flows but that has had no immediate impact.
A government source said the pact was still not being applied and Rome was working with the EU to accelerate procedures that would allow it to take effect.
(Additional reporting by Gavin Jones and Alvise Armellini in Rome, Federico Maccioni in Milan and Corina Pons in Madrid, Writing by Keith Weir; Editing by Janet Lawrence)