MILAN — EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen pledged the swift return of “irregular” migrants and a crackdown on the “brutal business” of migrant smuggling Sunday during a visit with Italy’s premier to a tiny fishing island overwhelmed with nearly 7,000 arrivals in a single day this week.
Tensions have spiked on the island, which is closer to Tunisia than the Italian mainland, with residents expressing impatience with the constant flow of migrants trying to reach Europe from North Africa arriving on their shores — not just this week but for decades.
“We will decide who comes to the European Union, and under what circumstances. Not the smugglers,″ von der Leyen declared after touring the island’s hotspot. The Red Cross said 1,500 migrants remained in the center built to accommodate hundreds.
In the face of the new crisis on Lampedusa, Italy’s Giorgia Meloni has pledged tougher measures and is calling for a naval blockade of North Africa to prevent migrants on smugglers’ boats from departing.
Von der Leyen’s vow to crack down on “this brutal business” of migrant smuggling and help Italy to cope with the spike in arrivals as part of a 10-point plan appeared to stop short of a naval blockade, at least a quick one.
She instead offered support for “exploring options to expand existing naval missions in the Mediterranean, or to work on new ones.”
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.
She also 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 EU, working with the countries of origin.
Von der Leyen also 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 EU 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 by 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.
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 hosted French right-wing leader Marine Le Pen at an annual League rally in northern Italy later Sunday.
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.”
Most of the migrants arriving this week departed from Tunisia on small, unseaworthy boats.
This year, Tunisia replaced Libya as the main point of departure for migrants making the perilous sea journey toward Italy, which has in turn created a crisis for Lampedusa with just over 6,000 permanent residents.
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.