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After years of a surge in migrant attempts to make it from the Mideast-North Africa region which goes back to at least 2015, which was a record year for such crossings, this week witnessed a truly unprecedented first. 

Starting Wednesday and continuing through the end of the week, a giant flotilla of ramshackle boats packed with mostly African migrants surrounded and inundated the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, off Sicily. AP reporters described that it happened almost in a “procession” and shocked tourists and locals alike.

Scenes on Thursday into Friday showed chaos erupting given the tiny island only has a population of about 6,500 people, and the number of migrants arriving by boat within only a 24 hour period has been tallied at around 7,000.

The flotilla is believed to have set out from Tunisia, and this particular island is easier to reach given it sits geographically closer to the African coast than it does the Italian mainland. 

Over 120 small boats hit the island’s shores within the span of a single day, and the its infrastructure has quickly been overwhelmed, per the AP:

With the island’s sole migrant residence having a capacity of about 450 beds, authorities scrambled to transfer the migrants via commercial ferries or a coast guard ship to Sicily, or Calabria in the southern toes of the Italian mainland.

Francesca Basile, a spokeswoman for the Italian Red Cross on Lampedusa, said they were making a “huge effort” to provide “basic services” for the 6,000 migrants at the centeron Lampedusa.

Migrant boats overwhelming the port of Lampedusa:

Image source: ANSA

Nationalities of those arriving included places like Chad, Tunisia, Guinea, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Sudan and other nations.

Each individual reportedly paid up to 5,000 Tunisian dinars (or over $1,500) to smugglers for carrying out the dangerous crossing, which often witnesses boats capsizing and mass drownings.

There are reports that boats may still be arriving, after an initial surge was reported as early as Tuesday.

Chaos and fights have erupted in the island’s towns and venues as basics like food and enough resources to deal with the thousands of newly arrived are running low.

Amid scenes of migrants scaling walls to get past migrant reception holding center barriers, there was also this unexpected moment…

What’s next? The AP notes that “The newly arrived migrants are progressively being transferred onto the mainland, where their asylum requests will be processed. Many hope to continue to other parts of Europe to find work or reunite with relatives.”

This is increasing the political pressure on Italian PM Giorgia Meloni and other EU leaders to stem the flow into Europe or find a solution. Some are blaming Tunisia and its hardline leader Kais Saied for pushing sub-Saharan migrants out of the country, thus encouraging more to embark on the risky Mediterranean crossing.


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