EU split over influx of African migrants

11th April 2011, Comments 0 comments

European governments clashed Monday over how to deal with an exodus from north Africa, as Germany and France warned they would close their borders to migrants who have poured into Italy.

Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni emerged angry from a meeting with EU counterparts after he urged them to help his country cope with an influx of migrants that has not subsided since revolutions erupted in north Africa.

"We asked for solidarity, but we were told to sort it out on our own," Maroni said. "I am wondering if there is still any point to being part of the European Union."

"We will keep doing what we're doing on our own. Better be alone than in bad company," he said.

Rome sparked a diplomatic row last week when it announced it would grant six-month residency permits to thousands of migrants, most of them Tunisians, which would allow them to travel freely in Europe's border-free Schengen area.

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

French Interior Minister Claude Gueant said border officers would ensure that all papers are in order. Otherwise, "France has the right to make Italy take back those who don't meet (the conditions)," he said.

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 fulfill their duties," he added.

Around 26,000 undocumented migrants have arrived in Italy so far this year, including some 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 the southernmost island of Lampedusa to other parts of Italy last week, but hundreds more have since landed there, including 226 on Monday, bringing their numbers to 1,500.

Under a bilateral deal between Rome and Tunis, new arrivals will be sent back to Tunisia.

But the previous arrivals will receive permits allowing them to travel in Europe, as long as they have valid IDs and can show they have sufficient resources for their stay.

"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 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."

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

"This is not a problem for a single country but for the whole of Europe," he 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 Friday to carry out joint patrols off Tunisia's coast to block migrants headed to Europe.

Berlusconi said Paris "must realise" that 80 percent 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.

© 2011 AFP

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