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Desperate people from North Africa landed on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

This week, more migrants arrived on Italy's Lampedusa than the small resort island's entire population. The deputy mayor says that some 12,000 people came on smugglers boats from nearby Tunisia and Libya. Exhausted, they crowded the town, asking for food and for water. The arrivals have again plunged the EU, Italy's government and the people of Lampedusa into crisis over migration. From Lampedusa, here's NPR's Ruth Sherlock.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: This harbor in Lampedusa is crowded with dilapidated wooden and metal smugglers boats, some half-submerged. There are discarded life jackets, rotting clothes and plastic bottles floating in the water. It's the debris of the thousands of migrants that arrived on these shores in recent days. And still they come. On the dock, men and some families from two more boats wait to be taken to Lampedusa's migrant reception center, all from Tunisia. They're exhausted but relieved to have made it across the Mediterranean, where so many others drown. They were poor in Tunisia, and now they say in unison, they hope for a better life. In Lampedusa town, I meet Moussa Koulibaly (ph).

(Speaking Italian).

MOUSSA KOULIBALY: (Speaking Italian).

SHERLOCK: He tells me how he himself arrived as a migrant from Guinea in 2017.

KOULIBALY: (Speaking Italian).

SHERLOCK: "I ask them about their health," he says to me in perfect Italian, explaining he translates for and advises the migrants that come to the local medical clinic.

KOULIBALY: (Speaking Italian).

SHERLOCK: He says when the migrants arrive at the port, they sometimes tut and kiss their teeth to catch attention.

KOULIBALY: (Speaking Italian).

SHERLOCK: He tells them, don't ever do that, brother. It's rude here. Moussa says he understands how local residents of Lampedusa feel at so many arrivals.

KOULIBALY: (Through interpreter) As a migrant myself, it's normal that I welcome others to my home. But so many every day without an invite is too much. And I say this as a migrant.

SHERLOCK: After this latest influx, the Italian citizens of Lampedusa are rebelling but not against the migrants - against their own government.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Shouting in Italian).

SHERLOCK: When Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni visited the island with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen this week, residents blocked their convoy, demanding to know how they were going to stop the migrant arrivals.

GIACOMO SFERLAZZO: (Speaking Italian).

SHERLOCK: The man who led the protest is Giacomo Sferlazzo, a musician and puppet master with long hair and a shell necklace. A Marxist, he's formed what might seem an unlikely union with the town's deputy mayor from the right-wing Lega Party to stop Lampedusa becoming what he calls a military zone.

SFERLAZZO: (Speaking Italian).

SHERLOCK: He lists the many military, naval and police outfits that have a presence on the island because of the migrant arrivals.

SFERLAZZO: (Speaking Italian).

SHERLOCK: "This island," he says, "lives off tourism and fishing." They don't want this to become a processing center for those seeking to enter Europe. They're so sensitive to this that citizens blocked a shipment of tents the government had sent to house the extra migrants.

SFERLAZZO: (Through interpreter) We, an island of 11 kilometers by 3, cannot carry the weight of the world.

SHERLOCK: A visit to the local hospital shows how tense the relationship between migrants and the local population can be.

KOULIBALY: (Speaking Italian).

SHERLOCK: It's a small center, but Moussa Koulibaly, the mediator between locals and migrants, tells me they've had to hire separate gynecologists.

KOULIBALY: (Through interpreter) There's a gynecologist dedicated to the migrants and another for the locals so as to not inflame any tensions, so that no pregnant woman seems superior to the other.

SHERLOCK: Later that evening in the main square, Giacomo Sferlazzo, who challenged Prime Minister Meloni, introduces a puppet show.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHERLOCK: It tells a traditional tale of a battle for survival in which Christians overcome their Muslim enemy in the region.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Italian).

SHERLOCK: It's an uncomfortable metaphor because many residents do help the migrants, offering food and clothes and even ice cream to the new arrivals. And Sferlazzo says he wants peace. But just like the response to the migrant crisis by Europe's governments, few want the island to become the migrants' new home.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Lampedusa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.