Italy gets EU help with Tunisian migrants

15th February 2011, Comments 0 comments

European Union border agency Frontex has accepted an Italian request to help it cope with a wave of Tunisian immigrants, its chief said Tuesday, calling on member states to take part.

"It is a matter of days and this operation will be launched," Ilkka Laitinen said in Berlin, adding that it will comprise between 30 and 50 personnel, "some vessels and a couple of aircraft."

"The situation is very severe and we are doing our utmost to assist the Italian authorities to cope with this situation," he told reporters at a European police congress.

He stressed however that Frontex will play only a backseat role to Italy, which already has "considerable resources."

"Compared to the national measures... the Italian authorities are taking, we are playing the secondary role," he said.

The past week has seen a sharp spike in migrants attempting to make it into the European Union from Tunisia, with some 5,000 brought to the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa after being intercepted by coastguards.

The wave of immigration comes around a month after a revolution in Tunisia that unseated a 23-year regime but which has left the North African country wracked by social and economic tensions.

Italy had declared an emergency and appealed for European help.

Laitinen said that Frontex personnel were already in Italy but would soon travel to Lampedusa, where they will assist in interviewing and processing migrants and escorting them back to their own countries.

He said that it was up to members of the 27-nation European Union to provide resources for the operation.

"I would like to stress that the agency does not have its own equipment. The assets, all the aircraft, all the vessels that are to be deployed... have to be deployed by the member states," he said.

He said he would be "very surprised if Germany did not contribute".

European home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem urged Tunisia to "effectively" patrol its borders and called on EU states to contribute to the Frontex mission.

"We are ready to assist both Italy and Tunisia. This is a matter of great importance for the EU as a whole, not just a bilateral issue," she told the EU parliament in Strasbourg.

Tunisian authorities extended Tuesday a state of emergency imposed when President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled a month ago but ordered an end to a nationwide curfew imposed on January 12, the official TAP news agency said.

The strongman leader's ouster inspired similar protest movements across the Middle East and North Africa and was the prelude to the even more dramatic toppling of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak last week.

The interim government led by Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi has vowed to hold Tunisia's first free elections within six months, declared full freedom of speech and adopted an amnesty law for those persecuted by the former regime.

Brussels wants Frontex to have a budget big enough to buy boats, helicopters and planes.

With a yearly budget of around 90 million euros ($122 million), Frontex barely manages to do more than complete pilot operations and studies, an EU diplomat who asked to remain anonymous said earlier this week.

Its mission is to monitor the EU's external borders through joint patrols, to accompany forced repatriations and to deploy when necessary a rapid "Rabit" reaction force of border guards from across the EU.

The agency has mobilised border guards from several nations to help Greece patrol its porous frontier with Turkey. Athens also received 9.8 million euros in emergency aid in December.

© 2011 AFP

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