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MIGRANT CRISIS

Over 1,000 migrants rescued off Italian coastline arrive in Sicily

More than a thousand migrants arrived in Italy within a few hours while hundreds of others, rescued by humanitarian vessels, were waiting for a port to receive them, NGOs and authorities said.

The crew of the Ocean Viking rescue ship said they saved 87 migrants from a dinghy in distress over the weekend.
The Ocean Viking rescue ship off the coast of Sicily. Photo by Giovanni ISOLINO / AFP.

More than 600 people attempting to cross the Mediterranean on board a drifting fishing boat were rescued on Saturday by a merchant vessel and coastguards off Calabria, at the southern tip of Italy. They were landed in several ports in Sicily.

The authorities also recovered five bodies of migrants who had died in as yet undetermined circumstances.

On the island of Lampedusa, some 522 people from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia, among others, arrived from the late hours of Saturday in 15 different boats from Tunisia and Libya.

According to Italian media, the island’s reception centre has been overwhelmed.

With a capacity of 250-300 people, it currently hosts 1,200, according to the Ansa news agency.

Offshore NGOs continued to recover hundreds of migrants in distress in the Mediterranean.

SeaWatch reported that it had carried out four rescue operations on Saturday.

“On board SeaWatch3, we have 428 people, including women and children, a woman nine months pregnant and a patient with severe burns,” it said on its Twitter account.

Ocean Viking, operated by non-governmental organisation SOS Mediterranean, reported that it had recovered 87 people, including 57 unaccompanied minors, who were crammed onto “an overcrowded inflatable boat in distress in international waters off Libya”.

Between January 1 and July 22, 34,000 people arrived in Italy by sea compared with 25,500 during the same period in 2021 and 10,900 in 2020, Italy’s interior ministry said.

The Central Mediterranean migration route is the most dangerous in the world. The International Organization for Migration estimates that 990 people have died and disappeared since the beginning of the year.

After Italy signed an EU-sponsored accord with the Libyan government in February 2017 to keep migrants from making the crossing, the number of people arriving in the country by sea fell dramatically: from 119, 369 in 2017 to 23,370 in 2018, according to UNHRC data.

But human rights groups say the agreement was a Faustian one. The chance of dying in a Mediterranean sea crossing rose from one in 42 to one in 18 between 2017 and 2018, according to Human Rights Watch.

The widespread torture of migrants, including children, in Libyan detention centres, has been widely documented by independent researchers, as has a thriving modern day slave trade.

In 2018, seventeen survivors of a mass drowning incident filed an application against Italy with the European Court of Human Rights after an alleged attempt by the Libyan coastguard to interfere in a rescue mission by pulling migrants back to Libya resulted in the deaths of at least 20 people.

Italy’s Memorandum of Understanding with Libya was renewed for an additional three years in 2019. The accord is due to expire in February 2023, but will be automatically renewed for another three years unless cancelled by authorities.

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ITALIAN ELECTIONS

Elections: Italy’s Lampedusa residents ‘left behind’ by migration focus

Italy's politicians are visiting Lampedusa to promise an end to migrant arrivals, but many living on the island say their other concerns go unheard.

Elections: Italy's Lampedusa residents 'left behind' by migration focus

“It’s just words, words,” complains Pino D’Aietti, who like many residents of the tiny island of Lampedusa feels abandoned by Italy’s politicians – except when a surge in migrant arrivals makes the headlines.

The 78-year-old retired plumber is sitting outside a restaurant on the island, where anti-immigration leader Matteo Salvini has spent the past two days as part of his campaign for upcoming elections on September 25th.

Located between Sicily and Tunisia, Lampedusa is known for its beaches and turquoise waters, but also as the landing point for thousands of migrants on boats from north Africa.

On Thursday, Salvini visited the island’s migrant reception centre where as many as 1,500 mostly young men were packed in a facility meant for 350.

But while the League leader makes immigration the cornerstone of his election campaign, there is a sense of disillusionment here; an island of just 6,000 residents out in the middle of the Mediterranean.

READ ALSO: Italy to choose ‘Europe or nationalism’ at election, says PD leader

“We have the most expensive fuel, the (water) purifier hasn’t worked for a long time, there is no hospital,” railed D’Aietti, as tourists in swimsuits browsed shops nearby.

“We are spare parts. When the tourists go, the rubbish we eat! It’s disgusting. And who defends us?”

League Leader Matteo Salvini enjoys a boat ride while visiting the southern Italian Pelagie Island of Lampedusa for his election campaign on August 5th, 2022. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

The lack of healthcare is a recurrent theme.

“We have specialists and that’s it. For anything else we have to go onto the mainland,” said 58-year-old Maria Garito.

Mayor Filippo Mannino admits healthcare is a problem, but tells AFP: “The municipality has limited means, it is up to the state to take charge.”

READ ALSO: Russia denies interfering in Italy’s elections

He has also called for more help from Rome – and the European Union – to help manage the number of migrants, which often becomes unmanageable in the summer months when calmer seas cause a surge in new arrivals.

Not far from the town hall, at the end of an isolated road, is the so-called hotspot, the immigration reception centre.

It is protected by steel gates, but those inside can be seen whiling away the hours in a few shady spots.

The government last week agreed to lay on a special ferry to transfer migrants three times a week to Sicily, and AFP reporters this week saw hundreds boarding a boat.

People at a migrant processing centre on the island of Lampedusa on August 4th, 2022. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

Few get to sample the delights of Lampedusa – unlike Salvini, who was pictured in his swimsuit in a pleasure boat off the island on Friday.

Although the locals prefer not to talk about migrants, prejudice is an issue here.

Ibrahima Mbaye, a 43-year-old Senegalese man who arrived here on a French visa three years ago, said “there are good people but half the people are racist, you feel it”.

He has been working as a fisherman, but says it has not been easy – and nor is it for those who arrive illegally.

“They think that Italy is their future, but when they arrive they’re disappointed. They understand that it’s not easy to earn money,” he told AFP.

As for the tourists on holiday on Lampedusa, many are either unaware or willing to turn a blind eye.

“We read about it in the newspapers but we really don’t feel it,” said fifty-something Dino, who has been coming here every summer for ten years.

The two faces of Lampedusa “are two separate things”, he adds.

By AFP’s Clément Melki

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