European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso was heckled as he arrived on a remote Italian island on Wednesday, where the death of over 300 African migrants last week has
highlighted the EU's flawed asylum policy.
"Disgrace!" and "Killers!" a small group of activists and residents shouted as Barroso stepped off his plane with Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta in
Fishermen also sounded their sirens in protest.
"They should be ashamed of themselves! They should solve this humanitarian problem!" one protester said at the fence of the local airport.
Another said: "We've been living with this for 20 years. We've had enough of death! These deaths are on the conscience of Italian and EU politicians."
Some 30,000 migrants have landed in Italy so far this year – four times more than in 2012, but fewer than the 50,000 who crossed the Mediterranean in 2011 at the height of the Arab Spring revolts.
An estimated 17,000 to 20,000 migrants have died during the perilous crossing over the past 20 years as they often make the journey on badly overcrowded fishing boats or rubber dinghies.
Eritrea, Somalia and Syria are the main countries of origin and the majority of arrivals are on Lampedusa, Italy's southernmost point which is closer to north Africa than to the rest of Italy.
"This is unbearable! The conditions are unacceptable at the refugee centre. This is shameful, there are children there! We try to help but we don't have the means," said one resident.
The centre houses around 1,000 migrants, including previous arrivals, but only has 250 beds. They are being held in unsanitary conditions that were judged "unacceptable for a civilised country" by a group of parliamentarians that came to inspect it.
There have been tensions at the heavily-guarded centre in recent days as migrants – some of whom have been sleeping in the open – demand to be moved to other facilities on the Italian mainland.
Barroso visited the refugee centre, as fishermen in this community of just a few thousand inhabitants sounded their sirens in the port in protest at the growing influx of asylum seekers.
Barroso was also travelling with the EU's Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem, who has called on EU member states to beef up the Frontex border guard service to mount "a big search and rescue" operation across the Mediterranean.
The deputy head of Frontex, Gill Arias, was quoted by the Italian news agency ANSA as saying that the agency would allocate an extra €2.0 million to Italy but added that any other funds for 2013 had already all been used up.
Italy also wants a change in EU rules that force migrants to remain in the country where they first arrive while their asylum application is being processed, saying this puts an unfair burden on crisis-hit countries of southern Europe.
But northern European states are opposed and say they do their share by taking in more refugees than southern Europe once asylum is granted.
Barroso paid homage in front of the coffins of the 296 victims – most of them Eritrean – found after their ship caught fire, capsized and sank on Thursday, as divers continued their recovery operation from the wreck.
Emergency workers, fishermen and tourists fished out 155 terrified survivors from the sea within sight of the coast of Lampedusa, who said they had stayed afloat for hours in waters covered in fuel oil that had spilled from their boat.
Pope Francis has repeatedly called for greater attention to the plight of refugees and on Wednesday at a general audience in St Peter's Square he addressed a group of Eritrean bishops.
"I am particularly close to them in prayer and in pain for the many children of their land who lost their lives in the tragedy," the pope said.
Barroso also met with Lampedusa mayor Giusi Nicolini, who has pleaded for more help and says the visit is "a crucial step… to see close up the immense tragedy this island is experiencing."
"I think the Italian government has to say sorry to the children and to the survivors for the way in which this country treats them. Only after that can we ask Europe to do its duty," she said.