A migrant reception center in Italy’s southernmost island of Lampedusa was overwhelmed Thursday as it coped with transferring thousands of people to the mainland after they arrived on small, unseaworthy boats in a 24-hour span this week.
The Red Cross said there were still 4,200 migrants at the center, out of the 6,800 who reached the tiny tourist and fishing island in a flotilla of some 120 boats arriving from Tunisia. Transfers to the mainland were ongoing.
“After a particularly challenging day like yesterday, today people are being continuously transferred,” said Francesca Basile of the Italian Red Cross. “The situation is certainly complex and gradually we are trying to return to normal.”
She said all of the migrants had been given food, and that camping beds were being distributed “so that they don’t sleep in the cold.”
With the reception center overflowing, migrants whose movements are usually tightly controlled were able to slip away, and were seen all over the island, according to volunteers. In some cases, residents handed out pasta and Sicilian rice balls along with water.
As Italian television SKY TG24 filmed outside the center, migrants could be seen climbing over the wall in the background.
On Wednesday, some migrants scuffled for food and bottles of water, according to Sicilian media. Others jumped into the sea to cool off.
SKY TG24 reported just one migrant boat arrived on the island Thursday, carrying 44 people.
Lampedusa’s mayor, Filippo Mannino, lashed out at Europe for leaving Italy alone to grapple with migrant arrivals by sea, saying the bloc had “remained silent all these months.” He called for a structural solution to the migrant crisis, and told SKY that Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni had pledged her support.
Speaking to a demographics conference in Hungary, Meloni said that Italy’s demographic decline should not be resolved with immigrants working to support the social welfare system and keep the economy humming. She said she would support a quota system “where necessary and (where it) can be fully integrated.”
According to the Interior Ministry, nearly 124,000 migrants had reached Italy by sea this year by Wednesday, roughly double the number by the same time last year. On Thursday, another 180 migrants rescued at sea were brought to the port city of Salerno, south of Naples.
In 2016, Italy saw the highest-ever number of arrivals by sea, when some 181,400 migrants arrived, according to figures from the U.N. migration agency.
Separately, a group of European Union lawmakers hit out at Tunisian authorities on Thursday after they were denied entry into the country for a visit aimed at better understanding the migration-focused agreement Tunis recently signed with the EU. They called the refusal “unprecedented since the democratic revolution in 2011.”
Tunisia has become the main stepping stone to Italy this year, replacing Libya, where widespread abuse of migrants has been reported. The port city of Sfax is a central jumping-off point for Africans who converge on Tunisia in the hopes of making the risky boat journey across the Mediterranean.
The cross-party delegation was led by chair Michael Gahler along with Dietmar Koester, both from Germany, and French lawmakers Salima Yenbou, Mounir Satouri and Emmanuel Maurel.
The visit was slated as a follow-up to a trip in April 2022, which was launched amid concerns about democratic backsliding in Tunisia. The new mission, which was meant to run from Sept. 14-16, was also aimed at promoting dialogue between Tunisia’s political parties.
The lawmakers warned that “the dire economic and social situation in Tunisia, further aggravated by the humanitarian crisis, urgently requires a comprehensive national dialogue, without which the prospects for stable political and economic development in Tunisia remain bleak.”