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EU's von der Leyen to view refugee crisis on Italian island of Lampedusa

Thousands of North African migrants have arrived at the island of Lampedusa over the span of a few days, plunging the Italian outpost into a crisis. Photo by Ciri Fusco/EPA-EFE
1 of 3 | Thousands of North African migrants have arrived at the island of Lampedusa over the span of a few days, plunging the Italian outpost into a crisis. Photo by Ciri Fusco/EPA-EFE

Sept. 16 (UPI) -- European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will view first-hand the unfolding refugee crisis on the Italian island of Lampedusa this weekend, her office announced Saturday.

Eric Mamer, von der Leyen's chief spokesperson, confirmed the trip in a social media post, indicating she has accepted an invitation issued by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni to assess the situation on the small island, located in the Mediterranean Ocean about halfway between Tunisia and Sicily.

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Aside from her office confirming the trip, von der Leyen, the European Union's chief executive, has not yet publicly commented on the invitation to Italy's southernmost point.

Meloni's invitation is aimed at drawing further attention to the situation on the island, which in recent days has become overwhelmed with thousands of migrants arriving on its shores after crossing the open water from North Africa.

Roughly 126,000 migrants have arrived on Italian shores by sea so far this year, according to Italy's Interior Ministry. The figure is approximately double the amount at the same time last year.

Around 7,000 migrants arrived at Lampedusa in more than 100 boats in the span of roughly 24 hours, straining resources to the limit and putting Italy under "unsustainable pressure," Meloni said in a video posted Friday.

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Reception centers are overwhelmed and overcrowded, leading to tensions rising between police and arriving migrants.

A newborn infant died aboard one of the boats Friday, shortly after its mother gave birth and before arriving in Lampedusa.

"President von der Leyen has always been very collaborative. I don't doubt she will be so this time too," the prime minister said.

Meloni, who was elected to office last year, campaigned on a tougher stance against illegal immigration.

Asylum seekers in Italy can remain in guarded detention centers for between 12 and 18 months before either being repatriated or granted permission to stay.

"It's not worthy to entrust your life with human traffickers, because they ask you for a lot of money and they put you on boats which are not equipped to make those trips," the Italian leader said Friday.

"In any case, if you enter illegally, you will be held and sent back. Our situation doesn't allow us to do otherwise," she added.

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, has called the current situation in Lampedusa critical.

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