- Sicily is being called ‘the new Lesbos’ as thousands of migrants begin to arrive on ancient Mediterranean island
- In the past three days alone more than 6,000 people have landed, as arrivals increase by 90 per cent on last year
- MailOnline gained exclusive access to the Norwegian rescue ship helping to bring migrants from Libya to Palermo
- Fleet of ships has been tasked with monitoring sea routes popular with migrants and picking up struggling dinghie
Thousands of migrants are pouring into Sicily by sea every day, sparking fears that the ancient Mediterranean isle has become ‘the new Lesbos’.
Arrivals to the island have increased by 90 per cent in the first three months of the year. In the last three days alone, more than 6,000 migrants have arrived on its shores.
MailOnline went aboard a Norwegian rescue ship that brought 900 migrants to the Sicilian port of Palermo. Thousands more, who had all been picked up on the Mediterranean, were taken ashore simultaneously at other ports on the island.
Official figures show nearly 20,000 migrants have arrived in Italy by sea since January, compared to just 10,000 during the same period in 2015. Almost 90 per cent landed in Sicily.
Donald Tusk, the European Council president, called the crisis a ‘never-ending story’.
Last night, the migrants were rescued just 30 miles off the coast of Libya by state-of-the-art European military vessels, which had sailed 750 miles to pick them up.
They underwent health and identity checks while being ferried to Sicily. One navy officer dubbed the process a ‘taxi service’.
When the orange Norwegian ship opened its doors, hundreds of West Africans filed ashore and were given sandals, tracksuits and food packages before being loaded onto buses and taken to reception centres known as ‘hot spots’, under police guard.
Astonishing footage showed a Norwegian soldier ‘high-fiving’ the new arrivals as they filed off the ship, wrapped in bright orange blankets to keep them warm.
Journey: Military ships leave Pozallo, Sicily, and pick up migrant dinghies that have run into trouble just 30 miles from the Libya cost and taxi them back to Europe where they are dispersed around the island
Among them were 25 women and three children. The vast majority were men, including one who was seriously ill and one teenager who was wheelchair-bound and blind.
‘There are no jobs for me back home,’ Christian, a 23-year-old baker from Ghana, told MailOnline as he waited in the queue to be processed.
‘I tried to get work in Libya but it didn’t happen, so I had no choice but to try Italy, even though my girlfriend is pregnant with our first child.’
Joe, 39, a father-of-two from Nigeria, said that his life was not in danger back home. ‘There are no Boko Haram in my area,’ he told MailOnline, ‘but there are no jobs or work at all.’
The migrants were to be dispersed around the country in an effort to ‘share the burden’ and encourage integration, while preparations were made to receive the next shiploads of migrants the following day.
‘Since last Thursday, my ship has transported 1,650 migrants here,’ said Torger Brenden, 45, commander of the Siem Pilot, the vessel which ferried the migrants to safety.
‘That is the population of a small town in Norway, brought here by one single ship in one single week – and the migrant season hasn’t even started yet. It is overwhelming.’
The migrants, he added, had gone to sea in dinghies with a single air chamber – meaning that one hole would cause the boat to sink – and without life jackets or basic safety equipment.
In the fear and panic migrants often started queue-jumping, which led to fights that threatened to capsize the flimsy vessels.
‘It may be true that our presence is encouraging more migrants, but it’s not my job to talk about the big political picture. Saving almost 1,000 lives in one day is definitely a good day at the office,’ he added.
The authorities are feeling the strain. Recently, Médicins Sans Frontières, the global NGO, pulled out of the migration magnet Pozzallo because the soaring demand and limited resources had made it impossible for the team to carry out its job.
Safety: Volunteers and workers from various NGOs, wearing protective suits, welcomed the migrants as they disembarked from the ship
Trouble: Donald Tusk, the European Council president, called the migrant crisis a ‘never-ending story’ as numbers rise following the winter
Port: The small Sicilian town of Pozzallo, in the south of the island, has already taken in the highest number of migrants so far this year
Saviour: Skipper Torger Brenden (left), commander of the Siem Pilot, said his ship has brought 1,650 migrants to Palermo since Thursday
Concern: Commander Brenden already described the situation at Palermo as ‘overwhelming’, even though ‘migrant season’ hasn’t started
‘The overcrowding, the lack of legal information, the lack of protection and the all-round precarious and undignified conditions in which people are received in Sicily continue,’ said Stefano di Carlo, MSF Head of Mission in Italy.
The UNHCR stresses that Sicily is, so far, much less chaotic than in Lesbos, and migrants are still being absorbed systematically.
The Italian island is the largest in the Mediterranean, so the effect on the local population is cushioned.
But the spike in numbers is alarming, with approximately 6,000 arriving in the last three days.
‘This hasn’t been happening every day in the last month, and it is too early to say if the trend will continue. But we are definitely in a state of emergency,’ a spokesperson said.
The surge in arrivals may be due to the renewed fighting in Libya, the closure of the Balkan route or the arrival of better weather.
The Siem Pilot was part of an international operation to rescue 17 dinghies about 30 miles off the coast of Libya.
Seven of the boats were unloaded onto this vessel, while the remaining 10 were rescued by Maltese, Romanian and Italian ships.
A total of 270 were taken to Pozzallo, a small port town in southern Sicily which has received the highest number of new arrivals this year.
The vast majority of the migrants arriving at Sicily are African. Those aboard the Siem Pilot, huddled in orange blankets and clutching regulation packages of food, were from Nigeria, Ghana, Gambia, Niger, Ivory Coast and Benin.
Many believe that the closure of the Balkan route through Greece will force Syrians to brave the dangerous sea passage to Italy, which would multiply the numbers of newcomers.
Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, warned that the EU-Turkey deal would magnify pressure on Sicily. After closing the Balkan route, he said, the focus must move to the ‘central European route’.
‘We must get ready to show solidarity with Italy and Malta,’ he said. The coming spring and summer months – known as the ‘migration season’ – are likely to exacerbate the situation, with fair weather encouraging more migrants to attempt the hazardous journey.
The last time that large numbers of Syrian migrants were recorded in Sicily was in 2014, before their focus moved to the more accessible Balkan route.
‘We think the Syrians are taking some time now to arrange a new route from Turkey to Sicily,’ said Commander Brenden. ‘Next month is when we really think the problems will start.’
Last year there were numerous fatalities at sea, but now the European border agency, Frontex, together with the Italian coastguard and other organisations, ensure that the migrants are picked up well before they approach the Italian coastline.
Andreas Lassen, the Frontex co-ordinator in Sicily, told MailOnline that in recent weeks, a number of migrant vessels had managed to make it all the way to Sicily without being intercepted by European ships, highlighting the huge number of migrants that are setting their sights on Italy.
Medea Savary, the UNHCR spokesman for Sicily, told MailOnline that although Italy has a well-oiled system for processing and relocating migrants, the sharp increase in numbers is proving a monumental challenge.
‘In Lesbos it is more spontaneous and disorganised, and the island is much smaller, but don’t think there isn’t an emergency in Sicily,’ she said.
‘Despite our search and rescue efforts, there are still deaths at sea. And despite our more organised system, the figures tell a different story.
‘It is not a normal situation here. It is an emergency.’