Italy steps up call for EU help with migrant crisis

Reuters News
|
Posted: Apr 09, 2011 2:29 PM

By James Mackenzie

ROME (Reuters) - Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi stepped up calls Saturday for Europe to help deal with the "human tsunami" of refugees and illegal immigrants from North Africa arriving in southern Italian islands in recent weeks.

"Europe cannot get out of this," he said during a visit to Lampedusa, the tiny island located midway between Sicily and Tunisia.

"Either Europe is something that's real and concrete or it isn't and in that case it's better to go back to each going our own way and letting everyone follow their own policies and egotism."

Lampedusa has borne the brunt of a crisis in which some 25,000 people have arrived in overloaded fishing boats since the start of the year.

Rome has been at loggerheads with partners including France and Germany over the issue, which will be discussed at a meeting of European Union ministers in Brussels Monday.

Friday, the interior ministers of France and Germany agreed to set up joint patrols off the Tunisian coast to deter would-be migrants and Rome has also pledged assistance to Tunisia to try to halt the flow.

Speaking separately after an earlier meeting of EU finance ministers in Hungary, Italian Economy Minister Giulio Tremonti said Italy could not be expected to bear the costs of the wave of immigration on its own.

"A cheque that needs to be honored has arrived in Italy, but it will not stop in Lampedusa. It will arrive in Germany, in the north and all over Europe," Tremonti said.

"We would like to talk with EU partners about solidarity and responsibility. European countries created mechanisms of financial solidarity to cope with the financial crisis, now we have to talk about solidarity for geopolitical issues."

Earlier this week, EU development chief Andris Piebalgs said Italy should not just focus on immigration but step up its aid contribution to help stop uprisings in Africa and the Middle East spreading long-term unrest across the region and Europe.

SHARING BURDEN

Its international aid amounted in 2010 to 2.3 billion euros ($3.3 billion), just 0.15 percent of gross national income (GNI) -- less than a third of the proportion in France and Britain.

Piebalgs said Italy needed to almost double its donation to around 4.3 billion euros.

France has refused to accept what it considers illegal immigrants from Tunisia, its former colony and has condemned Italy's decision to grant temporary permits to migrants who declare they want to go elsewhere in Europe.

Italy in turn has accused France of flouting its responsibilities under the Schengen agreement to maintain open borders within Europe.

Friday, Germany joined France in condemning Italy, saying Rome was violating the spirit of Schengen by issuing visas for humanitarian reasons even though the overthrow of the former Tunisian regime in January indicated there were no grounds for granting asylum.

EU figures released last month show that despite the visible emergency in the southern islands, Italy accepts proportionately far fewer asylum seekers than either France or Germany.

Berlusconi has faced heavy domestic criticism for allowing the crisis to reach a point where thousands of migrants were sleeping in makeshift camps dotted around Lampedusa before launching an operation to clear the island.

He said German Chancellor Angela Merkel appeared to be facing domestic political pressure to take a tough stance but he said he was confident she would accept the need to help.

"I think the chancellor cannot fail to agree on Europe's shared responsibility for this human tsunami," he said.

(Additional reporting by Francesca Landini in Godollo; Editing by Sophie Hares)