Migrant arrivals on Italian island swell past 2,100

Published May 11, 2021
MIGRANTS wearing face masks to curb the spread of Covid-19 sit at a pier as Italian police officers stand by, on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, southern Italy, on Monday.—AP
MIGRANTS wearing face masks to curb the spread of Covid-19 sit at a pier as Italian police officers stand by, on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, southern Italy, on Monday.—AP

ROME: Several hundred more migrants reached a tiny Italian island before dawn on Monday, swelling to past 2,100 the number of arrivals in around 24 hours and fueling calls from across the political spectrum for the Italian government to strengthen its migration policies.

Italian state radio said four boats arrived at Lampedusa island after being escorted the last miles to port early Monday by Italian coast guard or custom police vessels. The 635 latest arrivals followed more than 1,400 who arrived on Sunday.

Human traffickers, mainly based in Libya, but also in Tunisia, often take advantage of calm seas to launch unseaworthy boats toward European shores.

Many migrants slept on the dock after Lampedusa’s migrant housing centre, which had been empty until Sunday, rapidly surpassed its 200-plus capacity. Hundreds more were being transferred to an unused passenger ferry offshore for quarantine until they can be tested for Covid-19. Another commercial passenger ship was being dispatched to Lampedusa to take on some more.

The situation on Lampedusa is literally explosive, said a police union official, Domenico Pianese, in a statement which noted that some 2,150 migrants had stepped ashore on the island since before dawn on Sunday. “If we have another day like yesterday, with an incessant succession of disembarking, it won’t be possible to manage public and health safety,” he said.

Sunday’s steady stream of migrant boats arriving at the 20-square-kilometre (about eight-square mile) island, which is closer to northern Africa than to the Italian mainland, was the biggest number of migrants to come ashore in a single day at an Italian port this year.

This year’s arrivals have already topped by far the number of migrants arriving via sea in the same period in each of the past two years. According to interior ministry’s figures, by May 10, 2019, just over 1,000 people had arrived by sea; by the same date in 2020, 4,184 had arrived, and this year so far nearly 13,000 have arrived.

The numbers, though, are far lower than those earlier in the past decade when hundreds of thousands of rescued migrants were brought to Italy within the span of a few years.

Il Giornale di Sicilia, a Sicilian daily, said that just before Sunday midnight a boat dispatched by the port captain’s office aided a fishing boat with 352 migrants aboard, some nine nautical miles (16km) from the island. A few hours later, another coast guard motorboat took aboard 87 men in a boat farther out at sea, while successive hours saw more boats, some of them rusting fishing vessels, reach the island, the newspaper said. Among the latest arrivals were at least 13 women and eight children, the daily said.

The island’s mayor, Salvatore Martello, renewed urgent appeals to the Italian government to deal with the sea migrant issue. Lampedusa lives off tourism, and Italy has just launched a national campaign to quickly vaccinate residents of tiny islands against Covid-19 ahead of the looming holiday season.

Right-wing anti-migrant leader Matteo Salvini kept up his pressure for a government huddle. Giorgia Meloni, a far-right opposition leader, insisted that Italy immediately set up a naval blockade to thwart Libya-based traffickers from launching more vessels.

Published in Dawn, May 11th, 2021

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