Italy's interior ministry on Wednesday said it was finding the migrant situation "much more complex" than in previous years, and was upping returns to Tunisia as it struggled to house new arrivals.
“The coronavirus emergency and the consequent very serious economic crisis that has hit not only the countries of North Africa hard, (is) feeding an exceptional flow of economic migrants” across the Mediterranean, it said.
Many land on the holiday destination of Lampedusa island, as sunbathers paddling in crystal waters look on.
“Autonomous landings on the Italian coasts have more than multiplied in a very short period of time,” the ministry said, referring to small boats which make it across from the coast of North Africa without being intercepted.
There were also “organisational complexities” linked to coronavirus, for new arrivals who need to be tested then kept in isolation for a set period of time — and some have been breaking quarantine rules, enraging local populations.
Many of the autonomous landings have been on the picturesque but tiny Lampedusa, which lies close to North Africa, and has seen a rise in the number of small boats landing there from Tunisia in particular.
Nearly half of the 11,000 or so migrants who had made shore in Italy as of last week had set off from Tunisia, and most of those were Tunisian citizens, official figures show.
Other arrivals largely set off from war-torn Libya.
“The EU must immediately step up” and re-start the redistribution across the bloc of newly-arrived asylum-seekers, “particularly in this phase of high sanitary and health risk”, Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said.
More than 300 people, mainly Tunisians, arrived in Lampedusa during the night from Tuesday to Wednesday on board 13 boats. Italian media said that had pushed the numbers at the island’s reception centre to over 1,000.
Newly-arrived Tunisians could be seen lining up along the port — one woman holding a toddler, another clutching a kitten — before many were placed on a ferry to take them to mainland Sicily, an AFP photographer said.
In a video posted by the Corriere della Sera daily, holidaymakers splashing in the shallows watched as migrants clambered out of their boat onto the rocks on one side of the bay.
The ministry said 410 migrants had been transferred from Lampedusa on Wednesday. While people are moved on from the small centre on a regular basis, it soon overcrowds again.
Italy’s interior minister Luciana Lamorgese met with Tunisia’s President Kais Saied and its interior minister in Carthage on Monday to express “strong concerns” about the recent influx of migrants from Tunisia.
Flights for repatriation to Tunisia resumed on July 16, with 80 Tunisian citizens returned since the end of the lockdown, the ministry said Wednesday, adding that its aim was “to increase the number of weekly returns”.
It also said it hoped to be able to deploy two ships in the coming days to be used to quarantine migrants, each capable of housing up to 600 people at a time.