The sharp uptick in arrivals on the Italian island of Lampedusa underscores the need for a humane, sustainable and predictable EU approach to asylum and migration, warns the International Rescue Committee (IRC).  

Almost 8,500 refugees and other migrants arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa last week, according to the Italian authorities. The vast majority of new arrivals departed from Tunisia - a country where the situation for people on the move is becoming increasingly precarious - particularly for those from sub-Saharan Africa who are subject to targeted hate speech and racial violence. 

According to Italy’s Interior Ministry, more than 127,000 migrants have reached Italy by sea so far this year - nearly double the number for the same period last year, but lower than at the peak of more than 180,000 arrivals across the whole of 2016.

During a visit to the island this weekend, President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, revealed a new “10-point plan for Lampedusa”. While the plan contains some positive proposals, the IRC is struck by its disproportionate focus on striking deals with third countries like Tunisia and other efforts to deter people from reaching Europe, rather than ensuring people in need of protection can safely access asylum.

Imogen Sudbery, IRC’s Senior Advocacy Director, Europe, says:

“It is time to recognise that migration is a fact of life. It has become clear that building walls or other barriers will not stop people from risking their lives in search of protection. While cooperating with non-EU countries on migration is important, turning Europe’s neighbours into gatekeepers will not work - it will only push people into the hands of traffickers and divert them onto more dangerous routes.

"The solution lies in a comprehensive system founded on greater solidarity and responsibility-sharing, with a particular focus on relocating people away from states on Europe’s borders, and the opening up of safe pathways to access asylum. As the Lampedusa plan spells out, the “Voluntary Solidarity Mechanism” is a vital tool to move new arrivals from Europe’s southernmost states including Italy. However, despite pledging to relocate more than 8,000 vulnerable people from these countries in the year to June 2023, they collectively relocated just 1,890 between 13 countries. This is not a problem of capacity, it’s a problem of political will.

"It has been three years since the EU Pact on Asylum and Migration was presented. As it enters the final stages of negotiations, it’s vital to remain focused on establishing a sustainable, humane and comprehensive system, rather than on short term fixes deterring people from reaching Europe at any cost. If EU states are allowed to make financial contributions rather than relocating people, these funds must be put towards improving asylum systems and protection - not more border management, barbed wire and even proposed naval blockades, which would do more harm than good. And in addition to upholding people’s fundamental right to seek asylum, the EU must urgently expand safe routes. If they fail to do so, more people will be forced onto treacherous routes in search of protection, and more people will perish at sea.”

The EU’s Voluntary Solidarity Mechanism (VSM) scheme was designed to relocate refugees and other migrants who arrive to Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain to other European countries, where their asylum claims will be processed, in order to ease the pressure on countries of first arrival. Priority is given to those new arrivals considered “most vulnerable”, as determined by individual member states.

The Commission has now extended the duration of the VSM scheme, retaining the modest pledge to relocate just 8,000 people - fewer than 1% of the almost 1 million people who applied for asylum in the EU and associated countries in 2022.