LAMPEDUSA ISLAND, Italy (AP) — A migrant reception center in Italy’s southernmost island of Lampedusa was overwhelmed Thursday as authorities worked to transfer to the mainland thousands of people who 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 that set out from Tunisia. Commercial ferries and Italian military vessels were taking newcomers from Lampedusa to mainland Italy.
“After a particularly challenging day like yesterday, today people are being continuously transferred,’’ Francesca Basile of the Italian Red Cross said. “The situation is certainly complex and gradually we are trying to return to normal.”
She said all of the migrants received and camping beds were being distributed “so that they don’t sleep in the cold.”
The movements of newly arrived migrants are usually tightly controlled. But with the reception center overflowing, some slipped away, and they were spotted all over the island, according to volunteers.
As Italian television station Sky TG24 filmed outside the center, people could be seen climbing over a wall in the background.
Some residents handed out pasta, Sicilian rice balls and water to the migrants they encountered. A pair of islanders lugging a carton of fresh peaches stopped to give pieces of fruit to migrants who were exploring Lampedusa’s main tourist street, which is decorated with colored lights and lined with reateries and souvenir shops.
A local firefighter said he asked his mother to cook up spaghetti and serve several young men from Burkina Faso whom he ran into when he was headed elsewhere for a grilled fish dinner, Italian news agency ANSA said.
“They were exhausted, but above all famished,” ANSA quoted Antonello Di Malta as saying about the migrants his mother fed on their patio. ”One of them got down on his knees, asking to eat.”
Sky TG24 reported just one migrant boat arrived on the island Thursday, carrying 44 people.
Lampedusa’s mayor, Filippo Mannino, lashed out at the European Union for leaving Italy alone to handle large numbers of arriving migrants, saying the bloc had “remained silent all these months.” He called for a structural solution and told Sky that Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni had pledged her support.
Speaking at a demographics conference in Hungary, Meloni said the problems created by Italy’s aging population 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 for legal immigration “where necessary and (where it) can be fully integrated.”
Italy’s interior minister, Matteo Piantedosi, consulted by phone on Thursday with the EU internal affairs commissioner, Ylva Johansson, about the migrant situation, effectively acknowledging that the current approach wasn’t working.
“We agreed on the need to develop a new European operative strategy against human traffickers,’’ Piantedosi was quoted as saying in a statement released by his office. “I underlined to the commissioner the need to beef up repatriations by Tunisia toward the (migrants’) countries of origins.”
A bilateral meeting in Brussels is planned soon, the statement said.
Italy has a repatriation agreement with Tunisia to send back Tunisians found ineligible for asylum, but not with most of the other countries whose migrants come ashore in Italy.
According to the Interior Ministry, nearly 126,000 migrants reached Italy by sea this year as of Thursday morning, nearly double the number as 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.
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 a migration-focused agreement Tunis recently signed with the EU. They called the refusal “unprecedented since (Tunisia’s) democratic revolution in 2011.”
Tunisia has become the main stepping stone to Italy this year, replacing Libya, where widespread abuse of migrants was reported. The port city of Sfax is a central jumping-off point for Africans who hope to make the risky boat journey across the Mediterranean.
The visit by the cross-party EU delegation was slated as a follow-up to an April 2022 trip that was made amid concerns about democratic backsliding in Tunisia. The lawmakers from Germany and France planned to be in Tunisia Sept. 14-16 with a goal of 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.”
Colleen Barry in Milan and Frances D’Emilio in Rome contributed reporting.