Italy, France lock horns as migrants get permits

7th April 2011, Comments 0 comments

Italy granted temporary residence permits to thousands of Tunisian migrants Thursday on grounds of "humanitarian protection" in a rare move that puts it on collision course with the rest of Europe.

Interior Minister Roberto Maroni informed parliament of the decision, saying the permits would allow the more than 20,000 Tunisian migrants who have arrived in recent weeks to travel freely around the European Union's visa-free area.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi signed the decree after a cabinet meeting.

The move is part of a deal with Tunisia, Maroni said, that will ease the deportation of any new arrivals and also bolster border patrols along the Tunisian coast with the help of boats and jeeps provided by Italy.

The interior ministry explained that Tunisia would not have been able to cope with a mass re-entry of the migrants who have been arriving on Italian shores because of "the fragility of the Tunisian political scene".

Maroni accused the French government of "hostility" on the immigration issue despite the fact that many of the French-speaking migrants have signalled they wanted to travel to France and have been blocked at the Italy-France border.

"Freedom of movement inside the Schengen area is guaranteed by rules that have to be implemented," Maroni said, ahead of talks with his French counterpart Claude Gueant expected to be held on Friday in Milan.

Berlusconi and French President Nicolas Sarkozy will meet on April 26.

Gueant on Friday said he did not want France to "suffer a wave of immigration" from Tunisia and that migrants without appropriate identity documents and sufficient funds would be prevented from entering France.

"If these conditions are not met, France has every right to send them back to Italy.... That is what we will do," Gueant told AFP, adding that 2,800 undocumented Tunisian migrants had been detained in France in March alone.

"Most of them have been taken back to Italy," he said.

Gianfranco Schiavone, an expert in immigration law, told AFP that France was engaging in "de facto obstructionism" and added: "Instead of fighting each other, Italy and France should work together for a European solution."

"The European Union is making a terrible impression in its handling of what is a small crisis in a small country (Tunisia)," said Schiavone, a member of the Association for Legal Studies on Immigration in Turin.

Maroni said he wanted "to come up with a joint system for action" with France that would then involve the European Union and not leave Italy on its own to deal with the problem of mass arrivals of migrants.

"The attitude in Europe is 'every man for himself'" he said.

"We want to turn off the taps," the minister added, pointing out that the flow of African refugees fleeing Libya was also "intensifying".

Some 150 migrants from sub-Saharan Africa were feared dead on Thursday after their boat travelling from Libya capsized in the early hours of Wednesday.

Many of the people fleeing Libya are likely to be granted asylum because of the conflicts and dire conditions in their countries of origin, Maroni said.

Maroni said a total of some 25,800 migrants travelling on 390 boats have arrived on Italian shores so far this year, mostly landing on the tiny island of Lampedusa which is closer to North African shores than to mainland Italy.

The European Commission earlier this month said it was considering granting temporary protection to the Tunisian migrants under a 2001 EU directive never used before, but added that there was no majority of countries in favour.

The mechanism would have to be approved by the European Council, the EU's main decision-making body which represents the 27 member states.

"There is no spirit of cooperation.... The atmosphere is not good," an EU officials told AFP earlier on condition of anonymity.

© 2011 AFP

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