The Italian navy has begun relocating the first 600 asylum seekers from the island of Lampedusa after its refugee identification centre was overwhelmed with new arrivals and photos circulated of filthy conditions.
There has been a sustained increase in daily arrivals to Italy this month compared to recent years, according to Interior Ministry statistics.
Lampedusa’s former mayor, Giusi Nicolini, posted what she said were photos and videos taken in the centre in recent days. These showed new arrivals sleeping on the floor on pieces of foam, and bathrooms piled high with plastic bottles and rubbish.
“There are 2,100 people packed in the Lampedusa welcome centre”, which has beds for 200, she wrote on Facebook.
“These could be photos from Libya, but no, it’s Italy. And these are the ones who survived.”
Right-wing politicians were quick to exploit the overcrowding and blame left-wing parties in Italy’s government for being too soft on migration.
“And this would be the left’s famous humanitarian model?” Giorgia Meloni of the far-right Brothers of Italy party, tweeted along with the images. “Saying no to mass illegal immigration also means saying no to this.”
The San Marco, an Italian naval ship, was taking an initial 600 migrants from Lampedusa to another centre in Sicily. From there they were to be distributed elsewhere in Italy. The ministry said the transfers would continue on Sunday.
Lampedusa, which is closer to North Africa than mainland Italy, is often the destination picked by people smugglers in Libya. They charge desperate migrants hundreds of dollars to cross the Mediterranean Sea on packed, overcrowded dinghies and small boats.
Arrivals are also up sharply on previous year, with 30,000 would-be migrants making landfall so far compared to 22,700 in the same period in 2021 and 7,500 in 2020.
As many as 600 people attempting to reach Europe by sea from Tunisia and Libya went missing during the first three months of 2022, the International Organisation for Migration has said, the highest number since 2014.
An average of five migrants a day died on the Mediterranean route to Europe last year, the body said.