E.U. pledges crackdown on ‘brutal’ migrant smuggling during visit to overwhelmed Italian island

E.U. pledges crackdown on ‘brutal’ migrant smuggling during visit to overwhelmed Italian island

The plan also includes speeding funds to Tunisia as part of a deal with the EU to block departures in exchange for aid, helping Italy accelerate asylum requests and setting up humanitarian corridors in countries of origin to discourage illegal routes.

Von der Leyen pledged the Frontex border agency’s support in ensuring “the swift return of migrants to their country of origin” who don’t qualify to stay in the E.U.

And she called on EU nations to accept voluntary transfers — a frequent source of discord — as the EU dispatches experts to help manage and register the high number of migrants arriving in Italy.

“It is very important for me (to be here) because irregular migration is a European challenge and it needs a European answer. So we are in this together,″ von der Leyen said.

Meloni, who has softened her once-combative stance against the E.U. since coming to power last year, framed von der Leyen’s visit as a “gesture of responsibility of Europe toward itself,” and not just a sign of solidarity with Italy.

“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,” Meloni said.

She continued to press for an “efficient” naval blockade, noting that previous EU missions were not properly carried out, resulting in a Mediterranean deployment that she alleges encouraged smuggler departures; that contention is disputed by migrant experts.

The Italian government intends to quickly activate a system for repatriating migrants who are not eligible to stay in Europe as part of measures to be decided during a Cabinet meeting Monday, she said.

Save the Children expressed hopes that the visit by the two leaders would bring concrete responses, and called for a European structure to search for and rescue migrants in danger at sea.

Earlier in the day, television images showed Meloni speaking to islanders expressing their frustrations; she told them the government was working on a robust response, including 50 million euros ($53.4 million) to help the island. An unidentified person in the crowd said it wasn’t just money that they needed.

New arrivals also have chafed at the long wait to be transferred to the mainland; TV footage on Saturday showed hundreds surging toward the gate as police used shields to hold them back. In other shots, individual migrants climbed over the fence of the migrant center.

The crisis is challenging unity within the EU and also Meloni’s far-right-led government.

Vice Premier Matteo Salvini, head of the populist, right-wing League, has challenged the efficacy of an EU-Tunisia deal that was meant to halt departures in exchange for economic aid. He welcomed French right-wing leader Marine Le Pen at an annual League rally in northern Italy later Sunday.

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni on Sunday toured a migrant center on Italy’s southernmost island of Lampedusa that was overwhelmed with nearly 7,000 arrivals in a 24-hour period this week.
Ursula von der Leyen and Italian Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, visit the island of Lampedusa on Sunday.Cecilia Fabiano / AP

Le Pen and other politicians on the French far-right are seeking to leverage the Lampedusa crisis to push their anti-immigration agenda ahead of EU elections next June.

In her remarks, Le Pen lashed out at “those leaders who don’t realize there are signs of alarm and danger from the massive arrival of migrants on Lampedusa,” which she said created “trouble for the population when leaders don’t take action immediately to face this giant challenge.”

Critics in France of centrist President Emmanuel Macron have long accused him of being lax against illegal migration. On Saturday, Macron spoke to Meloni and the French interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, huddled by video with his Italian, German and Spanish counterparts.

The French presidential office said that Macron and Meloni agreed in their call that the migration surge in Lampedusa must be handled “with humanity” and with reinforced cooperation on a European level.

The migrants arriving this week traveled in a flotilla of some 120 small, unseaworthy boats from Tunisia, which has replaced Libya as the main point of departure for smugglers.

The number of migrants making the perilous sea journey to Italy has nearly doubled from last year and is on pace to reach record numbers hit in 2016 when most migrants left from Libya.

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