EU chief Ursula von der Leyen has pledged action to help Italy’s crisis-hit island of Lampedusa during a visit on Sunday, after the island was left struggling to cope with an influx of migrants.
Von der Leyen visited a migrant reception center on the island after the Italian Prime Minister called on European leaders to help more. Almost 130,000 migrants have arrived on Italian shores this year, nearly double the same period last year.
Speaking alongside Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni at a press conference, von der Leyen said, “We will decide who comes to the European Union and under what circumstances, and not the smugglers and traffickers.”
The island of Lampedusa has a population of less than 7,000 and has long been a first port of call for people crossing from north Africa to Europe. The island has recently seen an uptick in migrant crossings, with Italian authorities saying Thursday that 7,000 people had arrived in just two days, prompting the local mayor and the United Nations refugee agency to warn the Italian island is becoming overwhelmed.
The Italian prime minister and EU chief met Sunday to “offer a coordinated response by the Italian and European authorities,” according to von der Leyen. “We have an obligation as part of the international community. We have fulfilled it in the past and we will do so today and in the future.”
The European Commission president went on to say that “migration is a European challenge and it needs a European answer and solution.”
Meloni said the “problem” of migrants crossing the Mediterranean to Europe cannot be solved by redistributing migrants within European borders, but rather requires tackling the problem externally and preventing the departure of migrants.
Meanwhile, von der Leyen championed legal pathways and humanitarian corridors as measures to counter “smugglers’ lies.”
“We will offer migrants real alternatives through this humanitarian admission. This is very important to break the vicious narrative of the smugglers,” she said.
Von der Leyen’s visit to the island comes after Mayor Filippo Mannino on Thursday warned Lampedusa’s migrant crisis had reached a “point of no return.”
The UN refugee agency’s (UNHCR) Representative for Italy, the Holy See and San Marino, Chiara Cardoletti, on Friday described the situation as “critical,” and said moving people off the island is “an absolute priority.”
Many of the latest people to arrive have fled political instability in Tunisia. In previous years, most came from Libya and had been rescued by NGO charity vessels and Italian rescuers rather than reaching the island, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
The group now fears numbers will rise even further following the catastrophic floods in Libya.