Tuesday, 19 April 2011

France blocks Italian train carrying Tunisian migrants

Tunisian migrants at Ventimiglia; Source: LA Times

French authorities temporarily blocked trains from Italy in an attempt to stop Tunisian migrants from entering. Trains departing from the Italian border town of Ventimiglia were stopped on Sunday 17th April.

Italy has seen more than 26,000 mainly Tunisian refugees land on its shores following the turmoil in North Africa. On 5th April, Italy granted temporary resident permits to the majority of the migrants, which allows them free travel within the Schengen zone.

France fears that the majority of the migrants will head to France, its former colonial ruler, which already has a large Tunisian population. It has said that it would grant entry only to those migrants able to support themselves financially. Italy has been angered by other EU countries refusal to help out, given the extraordinary nature of events in North Africa.

The French authorities announced that the trains on Sunday posed a public safety threat, as some 300 protesters had planned to join the migrants on the so-called "train of dignity".

Both sides have claimed they are acting within the confines of the law. Italian interior minister Roberto Maroni was quoted by the BBC, saying, "We have given the migrants travel documents, and we gave everything (else) that is needed, and the European Commission recognised that, it has said that Italy is following the Schengen rules."

Italy said that the blockade was “illegitimate and in clear violation of general European principles” of free movement, and have officially protested to France.

Speaking to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini said "I realise that every country has its own domestic policy concerns, but the EU requires open borders, and if we start to put up walls the union will go nowhere." He called the closure "shocking".

But French interior minister Claude Gueant said that his government had applied EU law “to the letter”, citing the rule that asylum-seekers are supposed to remain in the country in which they first set foot, until they are accepted or expelled.

The EU has voiced its support for the French authorities' actions. EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem said that France had acted within its rights, given that they had cited "public order reasons" to stop and inspect the trains.

EU officials confirmed on Monday 18th April that resident permits are not visas or EU passports and thus do not allow the migrants to travel freely across the Schengen zone, according to Eurasia Review.

The President of the EU Council, Herman Van Rompuy, was quoted in The Independent, warning against the "exaggeration" of the "dangers of mass migration" from North Africa. While neither side had broken the rules of the treaty on the Schengen zone, he said they were both in danger of offending its spirit.

Train service was resumed on Sunday night.

Sources: BBC, Eurasia Review, The Independent, Los Angeles Times

For more information, please see the Menas Borders website, here.

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