With help from Italy, Tunisian migrants head for France
Armed with temporary residence permits and free tickets to the French border from the Italian government, a wave of Tunisian migrants has been transiting through Rome's central train station for days.
After a perilous sea voyage from southern Tunisia to the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, thousands of French-speaking migrants escaping a bleak economy in their homeland after a revolution there in January are now on the move.
The question on their lips is why France, Tunisia's former colonial ruler and a country that many of these young men idolise and where almost all have long-established friends and relatives, is not welcoming them with open arms.
French President Nicolas "Sarkozy doesn't like Arabs. There are a lot of problems," exclaimed Nasser Seghaier, 26, a computer specialist in a group of around 200 Tunisians milling around Termini train station one afternoon.
"We are so welcoming when foreigners come to our country. We just want a bit of hospitality here. We just want to work. We're honest people," he said, adding that he was headed for a Paris suburb where his brother lives.
"Look, it says in my documents that I can travel anywhere in Europe!"
Seghaier showed his six-month Italian residence permit card that said it was issued for "humanitarian protection" and a green travel document from the authorities that said it was valid "for all countries recognised by Italy".
Italy earlier this month gave out these permits to the nearly 30,000 migrants who have landed since the start of the year under an agreement with Tunisia that will see any immigrants who arrive after April 5 sent back.
France has said Italy's move violates European Union free movement rules and the thorny issue is set to dominate talks between Sarkozy and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in Rome on Tuesday.
Paris has called for an upgrade of Europe's Schengen visa-free pact, calling the system flawed as it battles to stem the influx of migrants.
The European Commission, the EU executive, meanwhile, has pointed out in Brussels that Schengen border controls can be suspended "temporarily".
Few of the migrants know or care about the diplomatic row -- most are concerned about how they will cross the French border in northwest Italy.
"There's been no organisation. Honestly I'm shocked," said Mohammed Hammouda, 27, an electrical engineer from the city of Sfax in southern Tunisia.
Hammouda said the first time he tried to cross to Italy his boat was forced to turn back after 20 hours at sea. He arrived on his second try on March 26.
He was taken from Lampedusa to a tent camp in southern Italy for two weeks where he said there was a lot of violence between migrants and from police.
"It's very difficult to get a visa to go to France," said Hammouda, explaining why he took the desperate step to board a rickety fishing boat.
Some of the migrants -- dressed mostly in leather jackets and jeans -- shouted and shoved as a handful of volunteers tried to organise the group.
A foreign tourist walked past the crowd, pushing a wheelchair. "It's full of Tunisians. Fucking Tunisians!" he said.
Dorsaf Yacoubi, 18, a student volunteer in a tattered black T-shirt, said there was little help from the state in helping manage the wave of arrivals.
"There's no organising here. It's just us," she said, as she handed out dozens of ready-meals from the back of a white van.
"Every day there are hundreds more arriving," said Yacoubi, an Italian of Tunisian origin, adding: "I'm doing it because they're Tunisians like me."
"We're giving them tickets. The tickets are paid by the state," she said.
Rome mayor Gianni Alemanno, a right-winger from Berlusconi's People of Liberty party, has taken a hard line against immigrants in the city.
"Whenever homeless immigrants arrive at the station, they have to be taken immediately out of Rome," Alemanno said earlier.
But that kind of talk on immigration matters has angered the Church.
Referring to those fleeing North Africa, Pope Benedict XVI in an Easter message urged people to "open their hearts to welcome them".
© 2011 AFP