A flotilla of flimsy boats, crowded with migrants and launched from Tunisia, overwhelmed a tiny southern Italian island on Wednesday, taxing the coast guard’s capability to intercept the smugglers’ vessels and sorely testing Premier Giorgia Meloni’s pledge to thwart illegal migration.
Compounding the political pressure on Italy’s first far-right leader were vows by France and Germany to rebuff migrants who arrive by sea on Italian shores, and in defiance of European Union asylum system rules, head northward to try to find jobs or relatives in those and other northern countries on the continent.
Starting early Tuesday, the unseaworthy, unstable iron boats came one after the other in what appeared to be almost a procession to onlookers on Lampedusa, a fishing and tourist island south of Sicily.
Some 6,800 migrants came in a span of just over 24 hours — a number that is a few hundred higher than the isle’s full-time population.
Provoking the surge in numbers was a bottleneck in Tunisia’s ports of several days caused by rough seas that meant the smugglers couldn’t launch their boats, according to Italian authorities.
With the island’s sole migrant residence having a capacity of about 450 beds, authorities scrambled to transfer the migrants via commercial ferries or a coast guard ship to Sicily, or Calabria in the southern toes of the Italian mainland.
Francesca Basile, a spokeswoman for the Italian Red Cross on Lampedusa, said they were making a “huge effort” to provide “basic services” for the 6,000 migrants at the center on Lampedusa.
According to Italy’s Interior Ministry, over 120,000 migrants have arrived in Italy this year by sea, among them were over 11,000 unaccompanied minors.
Most of them cross Italy on foot, bus and in trains as they try to head to northern Italy.
Andrea Costa, the president of Baobab Experience, a non-profit association that helps migrants in transit in Rome, says they have seen a huge surge in migrants from South Sudan, Sudan, and Eritrea coming through this summer.
Volunteers working with Baobab provide the migrants with a hot meal every evening on a street in Rome.
Most of them spend a few nights in Rome before catching a bus towards the town of Ventimiglia on the border with France.