A flotilla of flimsy boats, crowded with migrants and launched from Tunisia, overwhelmed a tiny southern Italian island on Wednesday, taxing the coast guard’s capability to intercept the smugglers’ vessels and testing Premier Giorgia Meloni’s pledge to thwart irregular migration.
Compounding the political pressure on Italy’s first post-war far-right leader were vows by France and Germany to rebuff migrants who arrive by sea on Italian shores, and, in defiance of European Union asylum system rules, head northward to try to find jobs or relatives.
Starting early Tuesday, the unseaworthy, overcrowded iron boats, came one after the other in what appeared to be almost a procession to onlookers on Lampedusa, a fishing and tourist island south of Sicily. Around 6,800 migrants came in a span of just over 24 hours — that number is a few hundred higher than the isle’s full-time population.
In all, by Wednesday evening some 120 boats had arrived, Transport Minister Matteo Salvini said.
With Lampedusa-based Italian coast guard and border patrol vessels unable to intercept all of the smugglers’ boats offshore, dozens of migrants temporarily eluded authorities by climbing up Lampedusa’s rocky shores on their own.