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An Italian island reflects Giorgia Meloni’s migration challenges

On Italy’s southernmost island, Lampedusa, thousands of migrants gathered in a reception center built for 600 people, as small boats from Tunisia continued to arrive. Outside Rome, a bus carrying migrants en route from Sicily to a northern center crashed into a truck on Friday, killing the drivers of both vehicles and injuring 19 migrants.

The enormous challenges posed by immigration were in the spotlight again in Italy this week, undermining efforts by the ruling far-right coalition led by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni to show it had made progress to dissuade migrants from coming.

In the years before her election last year, Ms. Meloni positioned herself as a hardline opponent of immigration, calling for a “naval blockade” and suggesting that boats used to rescue migrants be sunk once the migrants would have got off. .

Since coming to power, she has changed tactics, signing a deal between the European Union and Tunisia aimed at stemming the flow of migrants from that country, and working with the bloc to facilitate the redistribution of those arriving between Member States.

This week’s events have shown the limits of this approach, leaving it in a dilemma similar to that of previous Italian governments. Now Meloni’s coalition members are calling on her to take a tougher approach and say Italy needs more support from other European countries.

“Europe is scandalously absent, distant, distracted, ignorant, deaf,” Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League within the coalition, said on Friday. “We will have to defend our borders on our own. »

Party MP Andrea Crippa echoed these thoughts. “The diplomatic route leads nowhere,” he said. “It is obvious that the Tunisian government has declared war on Italy.”

Most of the migrants landing in Italy this year crossed the Mediterranean from Tunisia, many in transit from other African countries. In July, in a deal strongly backed by Ms Meloni, the Tunisian government promised to tighten its maritime borders and speed up the return of those who arrived illegally in Europe from Tunisia, in exchange for a major aid package. for its struggling economy. This money has not yet been disbursed.

Lampedusa, a rocky mass surrounded by turquoise waters and home to about 6,000 people before the latest wave of migrants, is 70 miles north of Tunisia and 210 miles south of Sicily. It is the main destination for a growing number of migrants from Tunisia.

Some islanders worry that increased migrant arrivals will hurt the tourism industry, but many express empathy for the people landing on their shores.

“Everyone in Lampedusa sympathizes with the migrants,” said Pietro Riso, 64, a fisherman who said he took part in sea rescues of migrants alongside his brother.

They also witnessed tragedies, said his brother, Vincenzo Riso, 56. “We have seen the coffins of migrants here for decades,” he said.

With increasing migrant arrivals, Lampedusa has become a hotbed of growing tensions between Italy and North Africa, as well as its European neighbors.

France has announced stricter controls at its borders to prevent migrants landing in Italy from heading north. Germany has suspended the reception of asylum seekers under the European Union’s “voluntary solidarity mechanism”, saying Italy has not taken back migrants who initially arrived there and that in under European rules, they are the responsibility of Rome.

“I partly expected it,” Meloni said Wednesday of France and Germany’s decisions, explaining that Italy had stopped taking back these migrants because its facilities were “full” and the Europe did not help us “defend our external borders”.

Europe’s main priority, she said, should be to try to stop the arrival of migrants in Italy.

About 126,000 migrants have arrived in Italy this year, more than double the number who arrived in 2022. Authorities say about 70% of them first landed in Lampedusa.

In Tunisia, traffickers use small, rickety boats, built from sheet metal, to maximize the number of people heading to Italy – a perilous undertaking across the Mediterranean. During a recent visit to Lampedusa, several boats, battered by the sea and in ruins, could be seen in the port.

Authorities say they are receiving dozens of distress calls at the same time from sinking boats carrying migrants, and are also busy tracking migrants who reach the port or beaches of Lampedusa.

As more than 100 small boats reached Lampedusa last Tuesday, the population of the island’s reception center swelled to more than 6,000 migrants, including children as young as a few months old, waiting to leave for more destinations. permanent in Italy.

As of Friday morning, 3,800 migrants were still living in the camp, according to authorities.

Usually, Italian coast guard boats rescue migrants miles from the coast and bring them to a dock accessible only to doctors, police and officials. Later, the migrants are taken by bus to the fenced reception camp inside a narrow canyon, isolated from the city. Once authorities determine the migrants’ next destination in Italy, they are transported by ferry or plane to the mainland.

However, as the numbers exploded, this system collapsed.

Exasperated migrants are pushing for faster transfers, and videos on social media show scuffles and tensions inside the camp. Some footage showed people crowding the iron gate at the entrance, trying to escape while police were stationed outside.

Earlier this week, a group of young migrants climbed the reception camp fence and showed up at the home of a local family to ask for food. The owner, a firefighter from Lampedusa, posted a photo of their dinner with a plate of spaghetti.

Friday’s bus crash, in which both drivers were killed, also highlighted for many Italians the growing migrant crisis. The bus was carrying 48 migrants, arriving for the first time in Lampedusa, to the northern region of Piedmont. On Friday, nineteen of the migrants were treated for minor injuries.

Francesca Basile, head of immigration at the Italian Red Cross, told an impromptu news conference outside the center of Lampedusa on Friday that authorities hoped to transfer 2,500 people from the island that day.

She said the situation inside the camp had been tense in recent days due to the large number of migrants, but was “never out of control.”

“Arrivals are now decreasing,” Ms Basile said. “The situation is gradually becoming less complex to manage. »

Flavio Di Giacomo, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, said Italy’s main problem was the treatment of such a large number of people on a small island.

“The numbers are high, but the main obstacle is that they mainly arrive in Lampedusa, which is tiny, which does not correspond to the total number of a big country like Italy,” he added. “The difference from previous years is their route, where they are departing from and where it makes more sense for them logistically to go.”

Some politicians have pressured the government to deploy the navy to pick up migrants at sea to ease the burden on the island.

Ms. Meloni has rejected the idea in the past.

“This makes us waste millions and millions of euros to send our military navy to act as a ferry to collect migrants,” Ms. Meloni said.

nytimes Eur

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