The European Union has presented a plan for Italy to help it handle arrivals of migrants and refugees after a record number of people landed on its island of Lampedusa over the past week.
The surge in asylum seekers arriving on the Italian island has rekindled a fierce debate in Europe on how to share responsibility for the tens of thousands reaching the continent each year.
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“Irregular migration is a European challenge and it needs a European answer,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said during a visit to Lampedusa on Sunday, offering a 10-point “action plan” to help Rome deal with the crisis.
She stressed that the better the EU gets at managing legal migration, the “stricter” it can be with irregular migration.
“We will decide who comes to the European Union and under what circumstances, and not the smugglers and traffickers,” von der Leyen said at a joint news conference with Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni.
The EU chief said she had already spoken to several EU leaders about the plan and was confident of their support.
It is very important for me to be in Lampedusa today.
I'm here to offer a coordinated response by the Italian and European authorities.
I would like to present to you a 10 point action plan ↓ https://t.co/p1KorMPEh4
— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) September 17, 2023
“The most effective measure to counter the smugglers’ lies are legal pathways and humanitarian corridors,” von der Leyen said.
Far-right Italian leader Meloni had called on the European Commission president to view the migration crisis firsthand, after the tiny island’s local council declared a state of emergency this week.
Several thousand people have arrived on the island between Sicily and North Africa in recent days, leading to overcrowding at the reception camp.
There are currently three Frontex operations active in the Mediterranean Sea intended to secure the EU’s external borders, to fight against smugglers and to rescue people in distress, according to EU information.
However, the Frontex agency has been sharply criticised for repeated reports of illegal so-called “pushbacks” of migrants and refugees over the borders they are trying to cross. Pushbacks are illegal under international law.
Meloni said the right approach was to prevent people leaving for Europe, not redistributing migrants around the bloc.
The 10-point plan presented by von der Leyen also stipulates that the training of the Tunisian coastguard and other law enforcement agencies is to be improved.
Due to its proximity to the Tunisian coastal city of Sfax, currently the main departure point for migrants travelling by sea, Lampedusa has long been one of the main destinations for people from North Africa seeking to reach European shores.
Italy, along with other Mediterranean EU states, has for years been asking Brussels for more support to deal with large numbers of people arriving on its shores.
This year alone, more than 127,200 people have already reached Italy via sea, according to the latest Interior Ministry figures. This figure was 66,200 the previous year.