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Chaos at island epicentre of European migrant crisis ‘sanitised’ for leaders’ visit

Just before the arrival of the Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and the EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, we made a quick inspection of the island of Lampedusa. 

This week more than 11,560 migrants have journeyed to this small, stubbly spot in the central Mediterranean, making it both the location and physical symbol of Europe’s current migration crisis.

What we found, as we viewed the central pier at the port and the reception centre inland, was something of an alternative universe.

On Saturday, hundreds of migrants had queued on the dock as their boats and creaky vessels arrived in port.


On Sunday, we found no one.

At the reception centre, known locally as the “hotspot”, we found local workers sweeping the grounds and picking up litter.

Significantly, the number of migrants housed within the centre has been greatly reduced.

More on Giorgia Meloni

After days of chaos, the island had been sanitised to a certain extent.

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Meloni answers question from Sky News

This was understandable on grounds of security.

The reception centre has a formal capacity of 400, but there were upwards of 3,000 in the place on Saturday.

At one stage, migrants fought their way out as they complained of hunger, overcrowding and non-existent hygiene provisions.

Presenting such scenes to Ms von der Leyen and Ms Meloni would have been unacceptable – certainly to their security teams.

But when they told a news conference they needed to travel to Lampedusa to better understand the issues, we wondered if they would get the full story.

Read more:
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Starmer rejects ‘nonsense’ claims about immigration plan

Will Lampedusa make it harder for Starmer’s rhetoric to pay off?

The commission president said: “It’s very important for me to be here together with you.

“The local community has continued to do its utmost to support the men and women and children who have made it to the island.”

This speedy reimposition of control made for a startling contrast and suggests the Italian authorities do have the capacity to temporarily house and process thousands of migrants on Lampedusa and other coastal communities.

What is in dispute here is responsibility and cost.

Migrants are seen inside the hotspot, on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, Italy, September 16, 2023. REUTERS/Yara Nardi
The reception centre had been heavily overcrowded on Saturday

Ms Meloni was clear in her remarks that Italy should not bear the full weight of migration and asylum in the EU.

“If we don’t work seriously all together to fight the illegal departures, the numbers of this phenomenon will not only overwhelm the border countries but all of the others,” she said.

The Italian leader may have softened her stance against the EU since coming to power, but she is still advocating for an “efficient” naval blockade of the North African coast.

Additionally, she wants the EU to forge agreements with countries of origin that allow for the rapid repatriation of migrants.

What she got from Ms von der Leyen was a 10-point EU action plan that seemed light on specific details.

Much like British politicians, the commission president did talk about the “ruthless” and “brutal” smugglers and criminal gangs that she blamed for transporting people to Lampedusa.

But the smugglers and gangs are an easy target.

European leaders (including British ones) know the gangs are servicing a near-limitless demand for safety, security and better life outcomes for many in Africa and the Middle East.

Doing something about it is going to take a far longer and more comprehensive action plan.


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