As Italy continued to deal with a wave of migrants fleeing instability in Tunisia, a senior European Union official said she was surprised by Italian accusations of a slow response to the crisis at EU headquarters.
The asylum seekers have arrived in their thousands
Italy and the European Union are at loggerheads over the handling of a recent surge in asylum seekers from Tunisia arriving on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa.
EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström said on Monday that she was surprised by "very recent press statements by some Italian authorities on the alleged bureaucratic and slow response by the European Commission to requests for help."
Malmström's statement followed comments by Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, who said over the weekend that Italy had been "left alone" to deal with the influx of immigrant arrivals in recent weeks.
"I had personal contacts with the Italian authorities already on Saturday and I asked if they needed our help to cope with these exceptional circumstances. Their reply was clear: 'No thanks,' Malmström said in response.
Malmström says Italy turned down EU help over the weekend
However, Maroni's spokeswoman, Isabella Votino, said it was "not true that Italy refused help from the European Commission in dealing with the emergency caused by the landings from Tunisia."
The spokeswoman added that Maroni had made several requests from the EU on Saturday - including for the EU's border patrol agency, Frontex, to step up its controls in the Mediterranean, for assistance in deporting illegal immigrants, and for EU members to respect accords on sharing the burden of accommodating refugees and asylum seekers - but had so far received no response.
In a statement from its headquarters in Warsaw, Frontex confirmed it was "ready to act if necessary and [is] preparing an appropriate operational response in the event of it being requested."
An estimated 5,000 asylum seekers - most of them Tunisian - have arrived on Lampedusa in the last few days following weeks of instability in Tunisia, after a popular revolt ousted former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia on January 13.
Many of the illegal immigrants have been taken to Sicily
The arrivals are threatening to overwhelm local authorities on the small island, who announced they would reopen one of several camps designed to house illegal migrants that was recently shut down.
Italy has begun to transport the majority of the immigrants to identification centers in Sicily, but authorities are struggling to keep up with the influx. Should they fail to make a case for asylum, most of the refugees will be deported back to Tunisia.
In response to the influx, Rome has declared a "humanitarian emergency" and offered to deploy Italian police to Tunisian shores to stem the flow of migrants. The Tunisian interim government firmly rejected those plans, but did say it was willing to work together with the EU to address the mass flight.
Meanwhile, Brussels said it would grant Tunisia 258 million euros ($348 million) in aid by 2014. Talks would also begin on giving Tunisia "advanced status" for improved trade and cooperation ties which it hoped a new parliament could ratify within six months, the EU's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told a press conference in the Tunisian capital, Tunis, on Monday.
That came as Europe's top rights body said Italy must not expel the thousands of Tunisian asylum seekers. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe called on Italy to engage the United Nations and other aid groups in dealing with the migrants.
Author: Darren Mara (AFP, dpa)
Editor: Nicole Goebel