Friday, 8 April 2011

Migrant issues cause tension on France-Italy border

Source: BBC News

Hopes of finding survivors from a capsized boat carrying hundreds of African migrants off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa are fading, while tensions increase between France and Italy over the movement of migrants throughout the Schengen area.

The 13m (42ft) boat departed from Zuwara, in western Libya on Monday 8th April, but got into trouble in Maltese waters on Wednesday. Italian rescue ships were alerted because of a lack of appropriate vessels in Malta, according to the Guardian.

Spokesman for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) Jean-Philippe Chauzy said the boat capsized soon after Italian coastguard vessels arrived. "The sea was rough and after people went to one side it began taking in water and sank quickly."

Italian officials say that some 200 people were on board, but the IOM has said that survivors accounts put the number at around 300.

The Italian interior minister, Roberto Maroni, told parliament that 51 people had been picked up by rescue vessels. The survivors are being housed in a reception centre in Lampedusa, the southern Italian island currently dealing with a massive influx of African migrants, fleeing the uncertainty in north Africa.

In February, Italy declared a humanitarian emergency on Lampedusa as the island, with a population of only 5,000, struggled to deal with the arrival of over 4,000 people fleeing Tunisia.

The turmoil in Libya has added even more pressure, and an estimated 26,000 immigrants have arrived on the island since the start of 2011.

Mu'ammar Qadhafi's regime in Libya is said to have been encouraging boatloads of migrants to leave the country since 22nd March, when the first boat left Tripoli.

According to the Telegraph, Libyan armed forces have been turning a blind eye to the thousands of people assembling on the beaches, hoping to secure passage on a boat to Lampedusa.

Qadhafi has long emphasized his role in restricting immigration to Europe. During a visit to Italy last year he said, “Tomorrow Europe might no longer be Europe, and even black as there are millions who want to come in.”

At the start of the coalition's bombing campaign, a spokesman for Qadhafi's regime said that they would not longer stop people trying to enter Europe by boat.

Italy has appealed to its European partners for help, but has said it has been rebuffed by a “total refusal to cooperate” by its neighbours. It has also been trying to negotiate with the home countries of the migrants and on Tuesday 5th April, Italy signed an agreement with Tunisia to try to stem the flow of migrants. Italy promised more than €200 million in aid and credit lines as well as more police cooperation.

Continued uncertainty throughout the region has, however, created a huge wave of migrants, which Italy is no longer happy to deal with on its own. It announced on 7th April that it would grant travel permits to more than 20,000 Tunisian refugees. These three-month permits would allow freedom of movement within the 25-country Schengen area.

Italy's Interior Minister Roberto Maroni acknowledged that this would allow the majority of the migrants to move to France, despite Paris's anger.

French interior minister, Claude Guéant said the country would not tolerate "a wave of immigration" and warned that migrants without appropriate documents and funds would be sent back.

"If these conditions are not met, it is absolutely within France's rights to send them back to Italy," Guéant said.

France, Tunisia's former colonial ruler, is a top destination for the migrants, many of whom already have family or friends settled there. Most speak French and believe their prospects for finding work in France are better than in Italy.

According to Reuters, France is refusing to accept Italy's temporary permits and have been turning back migrants who try to cross the border. A unnamed French diplomat, quoted on said that there was some doubt in France over the legality of the permits, and that they are considering re-erecting the border with Italy.

The Schengen agreement allows a member country to temporarily re-establish border controls with a neighbouring country in cases of threats to public order.

On 1st April, EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström said that it did not appear that France was facing a serious threat to public order, which suggests France's attempts to re-establish border controls would not be accepted. On 7th April, her spokesman, Marcin Grabiec did say, however, that if migrants did not have enough money to fund their stay, they could be sent back to the member state of origin.

Another possible course of action would be the activation of Mechanism 55/2001, which allows for the redistribution of displaced persons among member states. Malta has already requested the activation of the mechanism and Malmström has voiced her support for it. It requires support from the majority of the 27 EU member states, which right now is not achievable.

The mechanism has never been used before, but as the Libya crisis carries on, it is likely to be ever more discussed. Immigrants from Tunisia are considered economic migrants, and so would not be covered by the mechanism, which only applies to displaced persons.

Sources: BBC News, Reuters, Telegraph, Guardian,, IOM

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

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