Italy to grant Tunisian migrants permits
Rome - Italy will grant "humanitarian" permits to thousands of Tunisian migrants under a decree to be signed later on Thursday that will allow them to travel around Europe, the interior minister said.
"The prime minister will today sign a decree giving those already in Italy... a temporary residence permit for humanitarian protection that will allow them to travel around the Schengen zone," Roberto Maroni told parliament.
The visa-free Schengen area covers the whole of the European Union's 27 member states except Britain and Ireland. The agreement has gradually phased out border controls between these countries.
Maroni said that more than 25 000 undocumented migrants have landed in Italy so far this year on 390 boats - mainly on the island of Lampedusa, a tiny outcrop that is closer to North African than to mainland Italy.
Around 21 000 of the migrants said they were from Tunisia, he added.
France has voiced fears that many of the French-speaking migrants will head for France as soon as they are able to travel freely and has asked Rome to strengthen controls on the border in northwest Italy.
Joint system for action
"The overwhelming majority of the migrants want to join friends and relatives in France or other European countries," the minister said on Thursday.
Maroni - a member of the anti-immigration Northern League party - also said he would meet his French counterpart Claude Gueant on Friday "to come up with a joint system for action" that would involve the European Union.
The minister stressed that the permits would cover only migrants who arrived before Tuesday, when he struck an agreement with Tunisian authorities that will also ease the rules for deporting future migrants back to Tunisia.
Under the agreement, Italy has also agreed to give Tunisia 10 boats and 100 off-road vehicles to patrol its coasts. The Italian interior ministry earlier said that Tunisian border checks were "practically non-existent" at the moment.
Italian media reported that the decree granting the residence permits would be formally approved at a cabinet meeting later on Thursday.
The European Commission earlier this month said it was considering granting temporary protection to the migrants under a 2001 EU directive never used before but added that there was no majority of countries in favour.
Pressure on Tunisia
The mechanism would have to be approved by the European Council, the EU's main decision-making body which represents the 27 member states.
"Right now it's 'every man for himself'... There is no spirit of co-operation," an EU officials said earlier on condition of anonymity.
"The atmosphere is not good," the official said.
Italy has pleaded for help from the rest of the European Union to cope with the immigrant arrivals, but other countries have shown little enthusiasm.
Officials say the problem must be addressed at its source, by prodding Tunisia to step up its own efforts to keep people from fleeing the country.
Tunisia also wants financial aid to revive the country's economy and has told European counterparts that agreeing to take back migrants who travelled illegally to Europe would exacerbate Tunisia's unemployment problem.
"The fragility of the Tunisian political scene... would not have allowed the mass re-entry of citizens who left the coasts of the North African state and arrived in Italy in recent weeks," the interior ministry said in a statement.