But as arrivals in Italy have surged to 123,800 so far this year — roughly double last year’s figures, and on track to match or exceed the 2016 record — Meloni has found herself criticized on both the political right and left for failing to deliver on her cornerstone pledge.
The surge on the southern island of Lampedusa — which declared a state of emergency late Wednesday — came despite a new deal she helped strike with the Tunisian government aimed at blocking migrant sailings. At the same time, she is confronting fresh moves by Germany and France to stop migrants from leaving Italy.
“The Meloni government has failed across the board” on migration, declared Pietro Bartolo, a member of the European Parliament from the opposition Democratic Party, on his Facebook page. “The many metal boats that have landed in Lampedusa in the last few days all departed from Tunisia, the country with which the Italian government … signed a memorandum.”
Pressure is rising within Meloni’s coalition to take more aggressive steps, but observers say she has few good options. Despite her campaign pledges, Meloni’s Italy has refrained from deploying the more aggressive tactics seen by other front-line countries such as Greece, where the coast guard has faced sharp criticism — including of its handling of a distressed migrant vessel that sank in June, causing hundreds of deaths.
“The point is, aggressive action meaning what? What can she do? One thing is calling for a naval blockade when you’re in opposition. But you can’t really do any of that,” said Nathalie Tocci, director of the Rome-based Institute for International Affairs. “All Italy can do is hope to convince other European countries to share more burden.”
Images broadcast on national television on Wednesday showed Italian police struggling to contain crowds of desperate migrants on Lampedusa with plastic shields. In the mad rush of a rescue operation, a 5-month-old infant drowned after his boat capsized, bringing the escalating humanitarian challenge into stark relief.
Lampedusa was also on the front lines of Europe’s last major migrant crisis of 2015 and 2016 — when its warm reception of migrants earned it global recognition and a campaign to award the island the Nobel Peace Prize. But changing migration routes have seen arrivals to Lampedusa this year far outpace its 2016 record. Officials there now say the 7.8-square-mile island of 6,000 people has been completely overwhelmed.
On Thursday, Italian coast guard ships struggled to relocate thousands of migrants from the single Lampedusa refugee facility built for 400 people, to larger ones in Sicily.
“It is the defeat of Europe, of a system that … never implements real and true migration policies,” Lampedusa Mayor Filippo Mannino told the Italian press on Wednesday. “Here we are all tired and exhausted, both physically and psychologically. The situation is becoming unmanageable and unsustainable.”
The increased numbers, immigration officials said, reflected several factors. For one, poor weather — in part tied to the Mediterranean’s Storm Daniel that caused thousands of deaths in Libya — appears to have damped migrant flows for days, leading to a rapid surge once skies cleared.
But Flavio di Giacomo, spokesman for the International Organization for Migration in Rome, said the overriding factor appeared to be the growing number of migrants arriving from Tunisia, which has overtaken Libya as the largest launching point for seaborne migration into Europe.
Earlier this year, sub-Saharan migrants who had been in Tunisia for years began fleeing in larger numbers to escape a wave of racist attacks. More recently, di Giacomo said, more Tunisian nationals were joining their ranks.
“This is quite new, there was not such a large number of people coming from Libya to Tunisia to come to Italy before,” he said.
Despite pledges of solidarity from other European nations, however, Italy has borne the brunt of new arrivals alone, Meloni and others here have argued.
This week, French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin announced his country would reinforce its border with Italy to contain a surge of migrant flows, boosting mobile units and security personnel.
Germany on Wednesday said it would suspend an agreement struck last year to take in migrants from Italy. Berlin blamed an increase in migrant arrivals to Germany, coupled with the refusal of the Italian government to honor a European agreement — known as the Dublin treaty — in which migrants can be deported to their country of first arrival within the bloc — which these days tends to be Italy.
Meloni on Wednesday conceded Italy was not accepting returnees, arguing her country has become too overwhelmed.
“The heart of the matter, as far as I’m concerned, is not about how we move them from one part [of Europe to another],” she said. “The only way to solve it for everyone is stopping [the migrants], stopping the primary flows, and thus arrivals in Italy. And I am working on that.”
Migrant advocates say Europe is better prepared than it admits to handle the migrant arrivals, citing the more than 5 million Ukrainians rapidly absorbed in the aftermath of the Russian invasion. Though Italy is approaching a record in arrivals, totals from across the European Union remain far below the peak of 2015, when nearly a million migrants — largely Syrians escaping civil war — fled to safety in Europe.
But as numbers here once again soar, Meloni faces the prospect that the core of her migrant policy — a deal with Tunisia’s authoritarian President Kais Saied to boost patrols and crack down on migrant departures in exchange for millions in investment and aid from Europe — has failed to deliver.
Members of her far-right coalition partner — the League party — also seemed to suggest her efforts are not succeeding. In an interview published Thursday by the outlet affaritaliani.it, the League’s deputy secretary Andrea Crippa, was asked whether Meloni’s strategy in Tunisia had worked to prevent immigration flows.
“Looks like it didn’t,” he said.
Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.