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Nowhere to go

April 11, 2011

At a meeting of European Union interior ministers in Luxembourg, few EU member states have rushed to support Italian plans to issue temporary travel visas to thousands of migrants fleeing unrest in North Africa.

North African migrants in Lampedusa
North African migrants continue to flood ItalyImage: picture alliance/dpa

Italy's decision to grant temporary visas to thousands of economic migrants following political turmoil in North Africa garnered little support at a meeting of European Union interior ministers in Luxembourg on Monday.

Italian officials urged their EU counterparts to help cope with the massive influx of people fleeing the Arab unrest. But somewhat of a split has emerged between northern and southern EU member states. Germany and France have been especially opposed to the influx of migrants entering Europe.

"We cannot accept that many economic migrants will come into Europe through Italy," said German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich before the meeting. "We expect Italy to adhere to the legal standards and fulfill its duties."

An unnamed diplomat told the German press agency that Austria, which shares a border with Italy, was also among the most vocal critics of the Italian plan, arguing that the move could threaten the viability of Europe’s borderless Schengen Area.

No Schengen threat

EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström sought to dismiss those suggestions, though, saying the Schengen concept was an integral part of Europe.

"It is a test of EU solidarity and what it means in concrete terms and ultimately in words," she said in Luxembourg. "Schengen is a beautiful invention of the European Union and we shall defend it."

Tunisian migrants on Lampedusa
Hundreds more arrived on Lampedusa on MondayImage: picture alliance / dpa

Spain, meanwhile, argued ahead of the gathering for a "coherent European migration policy," with the country’s interior minister, Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, commenting that the matter was a "European problem."

More than 25,000 migrants, mostly Tunisian nationals, have arrived at the southern Italian island of Lampedusa since January. France is expected to take in the majority after Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said around 80 percent of the migrants from Tunisia wanted to join friends and relatives in their former colonial ruler.

Tightened border controls

France has responded by agreeing to launch patrols off the Tunisian coast to prevent further migration to Europe, and Interior Minister Friedrich said Germany also planed to increase border controls to stop the wave of migrants.

"It cannot be in the spirit of Europe that we are now forced to introduce new controls," said Friedrich, adding that no migrant activity was yet underway.

Italy's position is in direct opposition to Europe's policy on the issue, and Rome has urged other EU member states to share the burden of welcoming the migrants.

"Today we will see if Europe is made of unity and solidarity or if it's just a geographical expression," Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said Monday.

Author: Darren Mara, Christian Nathler (AFP, dpa)
Editor: Martin Kuebler