EU split over African 'human tsunami'

2011-04-11 15:22
Luxembourg - Europe was divided on Monday over how to deal with an exodus of migrants fleeing unrest in north Africa, as Rome clashed with neighbours refusing to take in boatpeople pouring into Italy.

Italy has urged its European Union neighbours to help it cope with a "human tsunami" that has overwhelmed the tiny island of Lampedusa since revolutions erupted in Tunisia and Libya earlier this year.

"Today we will see if Europe can be united and show solidarity, or if it is merely a geographic space," Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni told reporters as he arrived for the talks.

Rome sparked a diplomatic row last week when it announced it would grant six-month residency permits to more than 20 000 Tunisian migrants, which could allow them to travel freely in Europe's border-free Schengen area.

Officials issued the first permits on Sunday despite French and German objections.

France tightened the control of documents at the border with Italy, while Germany and Austria warned they could follow suit.

26 000 arrivals

German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said it was up to Italy to deal with the wave of migrants and find a solution with Tunisian authorities to stop people from reaching Europe's shores.

"We cannot accept numerous economic migrants arriving in Europe through Italy. This is why we expect Italy to respect the existing legal rules and uphold its duty in discussions with the Tunisians, Friedrich said.

"It cannot be in the interest of Europe for us to be forced to introduce new controls, so we hope the Italians will fulfil their duties," he added.

Around 26 000 undocumented migrants have arrived in Italy so far this year, including about 21 000 who said they were from Tunisia.

They said they were fleeing the dire economic situation that had followed the political uprising in January.

Italian authorities transferred thousands of migrants from Lampedusa to other parts of Italy last week, but hundreds more have since landed on the island, including 226 on Monday, bringing their numbers to 1 500.

Paving way for crime

"Italy is a great nation that can still show a bit more goodwill to seriously resolve the situation," said Austrian Interior Minister Maria Fekter.

"We will see whether we can recognise the permits that Italy is delivering," she said.

"We will see if we can let in people who cannot feed themselves, who cannot show they have the resources to stay in Austria, because letting these people in would only pave the way for crime, and as minister in charge of security I cannot accept that."

Spanish Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba said most Tunisians arrive in Italy illegally.

"They must return home and the Tunisians must accept them," Rubalcaba said.

During a visit to Lampedusa over the weekend, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said Europe "will not be able to shirk" its responsibilities

Headed for France

"This is not a problem for a single country but for the whole of Europe," Berlusconi said.

Many of the French-speaking migrants landing on Lampedusa in recent weeks say they want to go to France, which is turning back hundreds trying to cross from the Italian border town of Ventimiglia.

Despite the row, Italy and France agreed on Friday to carry out joint patrols off Tunisia's coast to block migrants headed to Europe.

Berlusconi said Paris "must realise" that 80% of Tunisian migrants have said they want to join relatives or friends in France, Tunisia's former colonial ruler, and are bound to make their way there sooner or later.

Read more on:    eu  |  silvio berlusconi  |  italy  |  austria  |  france  |  libya  |  tunisia  |  libya protests  |  tunisia protests  |  north africa  |  uprisings
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