By Yara Nardi
LAMPEDUSA, Italy (Reuters) -Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni called on Friday for the European Union to act jointly “with a naval mission if necessary” to prevent migrants crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa.
Meloni posted a video message on social media promising tough action in response to a surge in migrant arrivals this week which have overwhelmed the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa.
She said she had written to European Council President Charles Michel asking him to put immigration on the agenda of an EU summit in October.
“I intend to reiterate a request for an immediate EU mission to block the departure of migrant boats,” said Meloni, for whom the swelling number of arrivals has become a major political headache.
Her right-wing government came to office in October last year pledging to curb illegal immigration, but nearly 126,000 migrants have been reported so far this year, almost double the figure by the same date in 2022.
Lampedusa has recently borne the brunt, with around 7,000 landing there this week alone, more than the island’s permanent population, triggering impassioned appeals for help from local politicians.
Meloni said the cabinet would meet on Monday to pass emergency measures including asking the army to build larger reception centres to house illegal immigrants, and extending the time limit for which they can be detained.
Most migrant boats heading for Italy leave from Tunisia, and
Meloni helped the EU strike a deal with the north African state in July to stem the flows in return for funding, but it has not yet been implemented.
In her message on Friday she called on the European Commission to immediately transfer 250 million euros ($266.48 million) to Tunis.
FRANCE PLEDGES SUPPORT
Migrants were gradually being transported away from Lampedusa’s over-stretched “hotspot” reception centre on Friday to the larger island of Sicily and other parts of Italy.
“I hope the situation improves and that they let us leave from here because the living conditions here are not easy. We sleep in the open air, in the sun and in the cold,” said Claudine Nsoe, a 29-year-old migrant from Cameroon.
Holding her 18-month-old son Prince on her lap, she said it had taken a week to get to Lampedusa from Libya with two children.
After tensions and scuffles inside the centre, footage from Thursday night published on social media showed some migrants mixing with locals and tourists and dancing to music on Lampedusa’s main street.
Earlier on Friday, France agreed to work with Italy towards some sort of EU response to the crisis.
“I want to say very sincerely to all our Italian friends that I believe it is the responsibility of the European Union, the entire European Union, to stand by Italy,” French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters.
The U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) joined calls by U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres for the EU to share out the burden of rescuing migrants and eventually settling those who received refugee status – one of the most controversial issues among member states.
“It can’t just be on those frontline states like Italy that receive the initial arrivals to have to accommodate them for the longer term,” said UNHCR spokesperson Matthew Saltmarsh.
($1 = 0.9382 euro)
(Reporting by Alvise Armellini and Gavin Jones in Rome and Augustin Turpin and Dominique Vidalon in Paris; Writing by Gavin Jones and Keith Weir; Editing by Mark Heinrich, Kevin Liffey and Alistair Bell)