Africa World

Sat 16 September 2023:

They arrived in rapid succession, a flotilla of rickety boats, carrying desperate migrants from the Tunisian coast across the Mediterranean Sea. Within three days, their numbers — nearly 7,000 by late Wednesday — had topped the total population of their destination, the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa.

The island – whose population is under 7,000 – has long been a first port of call, for people crossing from north Africa, and has been a flashpoint in Europe’s migration crisis.

Many migrants have been transferred to relieve the island’s over-stretched refugee centre, which has a normal capacity of around 400, but latest figures indicate more than 2,700 remain.

Lampedusa – closer to Africa than the Italian mainland – has recently borne the brunt of crossings from Tunisia, which has replaced Libya as the main base for migrant smuggling in the Mediterranean.

Many of those arriving in Lampedusa, and who are transferred to the Italian mainland, try to cross the Ventimiglia border, into the French seaside town of Menton.

According to the International Organization for Migration, many of the latest people to arrive have fled political instability in Tunisia. The group now fears numbers will rise even further, following the catastrophic floods in Libya.

Major headache

The influx has become a major headache for  Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni whose right-wing government came to office in October last year pledging to curb illegal immigration.

PM Meloni has invited the head of the European Commission to see conditions on Lampedusa and called for a deal with Tunisia, aimed at stemming the flow in return for funding, to be implemented.

She also said she’d written to European Council President Charles Michel to ask for immigration to be on the agenda at an EU summit in October.

“I intend to reiterate a request for an immediate EU mission to block the departure of migrant boats,” said  PM Meloni.

“Obviously, Italy and Europe cannot welcome this massive influx of people, especially when these migrant flows are being managed by unscrupulous traffickers.”

But nearly 126,000 migrants are reported to have arrived in  Italy  so far this year, almost double the figure by the same date in 2022.

In July, Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, along with EU chief Ursula Von der Leyen, traveled to Tunisia with a promise of investment funds as an incentive to stop the boats, including 105 million euros, dedicated to stop smugglers, but the EU this week largely stalled the plan in Brussels.

Who are the people arriving?

Aboard the boats arriving in Lampedusa from Tunisia are citizens of various African nations, including Ivory Coast, Guinea, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Mali and Tunisians themselves. Many lived and worked in Tunisia for years before deciding to set off to Europe.

There is also a growing number of people arriving from Tunisia after crossing in from neighboring Libya, according to IOM. These include citizens of Egypt, Eritrea and Sudan, where the ongoing conflict between rival military leaders has already displaced more than 4 million people since April.

Most of those boarding smugglers’ boats for Europe are young men and unaccompanied minors, though women and children are seen but in smaller numbers.

What is behind the surge?

Migration experts say Mediterranean storm Daniel forced smugglers in and around the Tunisian coastal city of Sfax to pause their operations for several days, creating a bottleneck. As soon as the weather improved, they launched more than 100 small iron boats from Tunisian beaches carrying between 30 to 40 people.

“It’s also a way of making sure more people get through the net and overwhelm the system,” said Chris Borowski, a senior press officer at the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, also known as Frontex.

The end of summer also brings a rush in boat crossings as migrants try their luck before the harsher fall and winter weather.






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