By Yara Nardi
LAMPEDUSA, Italy (Reuters) - European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Sunday visited the Italian island of Lampedusa, which is struggling with a surge in migrant arrivals, and promised a 10-point EU action plan to help Italy deal with the situation.
Nearly 126,000 migrants have arrived in Italy so far this year, almost double the figure by the same date in 2022. The small island of Lampedusa has recently seen a sharp rise in the number of people arriving by boat, with more than 7,000 landing this week, more than the island's permanent population.
Von der Leyen was accompanied by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and the car carrying them to Lampedusa's migrant reception centre was briefly blocked by locals protesting over the burden facing the island.
"We're working on it ... we are doing our best," Meloni told the protesters.
Following the visit to the centre, von der Leyen, who is expected to run for a second term when her mandate expires next year, set out a 10-point "action plan" to relieve pressure on Italy, where most migrants arrive from north Africa's shores by boat.
"Irregular migration is a European challenge and it needs a European response, we are in this together," she said at a joint news conference with Meloni. "You can count on the EU," she added in Italian.
The plan includes using the EU's external borders agency Frontex to identify migrants arriving in Italy and repatriate those not eligible for asylum.
Frontex would also step up sea and aerial surveillance of migrant boats and help crack down on people-smugglers, von der Leyen said, adding that she had already spoken to several EU leaders about the plan and was confident of their support.
She promised to speed up the supply of equipment to the coastguard of Tunisia, currently the main departure point for sea migrants, and accelerate the transfer of funds to Tunis under a deal struck in July aimed at curbing migration.
Von der Leyen also vowed to increase access to legal channels for the migrants, saying "the better we are with legal migration the stricter we can be with irregular migration," while committing to a sustained battle against traffickers.
The surge in migrant crossings is a major political headache for Meloni, who took office in October last year and has made fighting illegal immigration a cornerstone of her rise to power.
She reiterated on Sunday that the right approach is to prevent people leaving for Europe, not redistributing migrants around the bloc.
On Monday her cabinet will meet to approve tough measures, including building new detention and repatriation centres and extending the maximum time migrants can be held for.
(Additional reporting by Tony Colapinto and Gavin Jones, writing by Gavin Jones, Editing by Louise Heavens)