EU Chief Ursula Von Der Leyen and Italy’s PM Giorgia Meloni Visit Lampedusa amid Surge in Migrant Arrivals

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Von der Leyen and Meloni visited Lampedusa on Sunday – after around 8,500 migrants arrived there over the past three days – and pledged to increase support to transfer migrants out of the Italian island.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni arrived on the tiny Italian Mediterranean island of Lampedusa on Sunday, after Meloni called for EU help with small boat arrivals.

Between Monday and Wednesday this week, around 8,500 people – more than the island’s entire local population – have arrived in 199 boats, according to the UN migration agency.

Meloni says Italy is being placed under “unsustainable pressure”. She called for action at the EU level to prevent migrant departures from North Africa to Europe, including the possibility of a naval blockade of North Africa to stop smugglers’ boats from reaching Europe.

“The only way to seriously tackle the problem is to stop the illegal departures,” Meloni said alongside von der Leyen, adding that all parties needed to pursue the same goal and work for “serious, complex, and sustainable solutions.”

Von der Leyen acknowledged that “irregular migration is a European challenge and needs a European answer”. She also praised the people of Lampedusa for the support they had given to migrants, who she said had arrived on the island “simply because of its location”.

The EU chief, however, pledged to increase support to transfer migrants out of Lampedusa, adding that “irregular” migrants could face deportation to their country of origin if they do not qualify to stay in the EU. She also vowed to crack down on the “brutal business” of human smuggling.

“We will decide who comes to the European Union and under what circumstances,” von der Leyen said. “Not the smugglers.”

Lampedusa has long been a landing point for migrant boats from North Africa. But this week officials said its migration centre, built to house fewer than 400 people, was overwhelmed by the influx of new arrivals.

The Italian Red Cross, which runs the overcrowded centre, said Sunday that 1,500 migrants remained at the centre designed for 400 arrivals.

The surge in arrivals led to protests on Saturday by some Lampedusa residents against plans to build a new tent camp to host the migrants.

Von der Leyen, who called on other EU member states to take in some of the migrants, also called for increased air and sea surveillance of the Mediterranean, which could be organised through the EU border agency Frontex.

The number of migrants making the dangerous trip to Italy has doubled over last year and is on pace to reach the record numbers of 2016.