Italy’s island of Lampedusa is the main target of the new migration movement from Tunisia. The local authorities call the situation “uncontrollable”.
In July almost as many refugees and migrants arrived in Lampedusa as in the entire first half of the year. According to United Nations figures, 5,067 people have reached Italy by sea in the past four weeks, most of whom went ashore on Lampedusa. A total of 6,653 people had come to Italy in the entire six months previously.
Lampedusa’s mayor Totò Martello called the situation “uncontrollable”. If the government doesn’t, he’ll declare a state of emergency. There were more than 1,000 migrants on the 20 square kilometer island at the weekend, there is only one reception camp with space for 95 people.
The arrivals are usually not refugees who set sail on the Libyan coast. Rather, they are boats that translate from various places in Tunisia to the island of Lampedusa, just 140 kilometers away. They come on wooden boats that are comparatively seaworthy and usually have space for between 20 and 40 people.
However, this does not mean that there are no accidents: the Alarm Phone initiative has counted three to four accidents between Tunisia and Lampedusa in the past few days alone. How many people lost their lives is unclear.
Many Tunisian migrants, the so-called Harraga, are sitting in the boats to Lampedusa. According to the Italian Ministry of the Interior, Tunisian nationals made up around 39 percent of all those arriving by sea in Italy this year. They were by far the largest group, followed by Bengal (14 percent) and Ivorians (6 percent).
After observing the Alarm Phone and the NGO Sea-Watch, some of the boats coming from Tunisia are intercepted by the Tunisian coast guard and towed back to Tunisia. In the first half of the year, about the same number of people could have been brought back to Tunisia in this way as arrived in Italy, Alarm Phone estimates.
The crew of the “Moonbird” reconnaissance aircraft operated by Sea-Watch had documented such an action on June 16 with photos from the air. That day, after four days at sea, the passengers of a boat were brought back to the port of Zarzis by the Tunisian coast guard – even though it was already in European waters. According to Sea-Watch, the Italian coast guard and Frontex were involved in the action.
In June, the Tunisian coast guard reportedly stopped 17 boats trying to get to Italy in a single day, and arrested hundreds of inmates, according to UNHCR. Tunisia is one of the countries that has been cooperating closely with Italy on border protection for a long time. Since the rule of dictator Ben Ali, who was overthrown in 2011, laws have been in force on the basis of which sub-Saharan migrants can be detained to prevent a crossing to Italy.
Tunisian citizens are also prohibited from traveling to Italy without papers. The legal basis for relations between the EU and Tunisia has so far been the Association Agreement, which entered into force in 1998, which already explicitly provides for the fight against “illegal” migration and an expansion of the repatriations of Tunisians.
Italy is currently taking those arriving to Catania, Sicily, from where they will be distributed throughout the country. The EU Commission received an application from Italy, which involves redistribution to other EU countries, said an EU spokesman in Brussels on Tuesday. The Commission is now in contact with the other Member States.
Ida Carmina of the co-governing five-star movement advocated airlifts that could take people from Lampedusa to other areas. On the other hand, she declined a quarantine ship with 1,000 berths off Sicily. That harbors risks for tourism. The Ministry of the Interior wants to relieve the reception centers in southern Italy with such a ship. “We have to reactivate the mechanisms for the return to Tunisia immediately,” said Foreign Minister Luigi Di Magio. He is in favor of a faster deportation to Tunisia – the relevant agreements have never been suspended.
Italy’s former interior minister and head of the extreme right Lega Matteo Salvini called the arrivals on Lampedusa an “organized invasion”, which is not very original. He is likely to speculate that the situation will help him with his upcoming process. On Thursday, the Senate will vote on whether Salvini’s immunity will be waived. The public prosecutor wants to try him because in August 2019, as Minister of the Interior, he refused to allow the Open Arms rescue ship, which had 150 refugees on board, to enter an Italian port for almost three weeks.