Clever Italian move puts strain on EU borders
Special visas issued to north African immigrants entitle them to cross into France
The fragile policy of informal border controls within the European Union is in danger of collapse following Italy’s decision to give thousands of migrants from north Africa the right to leave the country and travel north into France, Austria and Germany.
There is now a very real prospect of border controls being resurrected for the first time since the Schengen Agreement was introduced in 1995, a deal which effectively removed the borders between EU states.
More than 25,000 people have arrived in Italy, mainly via the southern island of Lampedusa, over the last three months. Most are young men from Tunisia looking for work, though in recent weeks refugees from Libya have been coming too – at great risk to their lives, given the much longer sea journey.
Since the fall of former Tunisian president Ben Ali in mid-January, both the country's economy and its border controls have completely collapsed, giving thousands reason to escape Africa by sea.
This crisis has been a long time unfolding, and the Italians has been asking the EU for help ever since the north African influx began. They were given little response, save an opportunistic visit by the right-wing leader of France's National Front party, Marine le Pen. Visiting Lampedusa last month, she commented, without a trace of irony: "If I listened only to my heart, I would throw myself in the water to save them. But we would all drown because my boat is too fragile".
Her attitude has turned out to be the prevalent one. So, with the EU countries each insisting that "their boats are too fragile" to cope with the influx of migrants, Italy decided to take action on its own.
Last week, Italy declared that it would be granting six months 'humanitarian visas' to all Tunisians who arrived in the country before April 5. Following much wrangling with Tunisian officials, the Italian government extracted a promise that any who had arrived after that date could be returned home.
Under normal EU rules, it is up to each member nation to ensure that immigrants seeking refuge do not leave the country where they first set foot. In other words, if the migrants come to Italy for whatever reason, they are Italy’s problem.
By granting 'humanitarian visas', the Italians have, in effect, made the immigrants temporary EU citizens and eligible, therefore, to travel throughout the EU. (Britain has always been the odd one out because of its 'last bastion' status, and is entitled to stop migrants at the channel.)
Italy's neighbours are furious, the French in particular because that's where most Tunisian migrants really want to go. Tunisia was a French colony until 1956 and most Tunisians speak the language.
At a meeting on Monday, France, Germany, Belgium and others responded to italy’s unilateral decidsion by threatening to enforce their borders with immigration checks, a move that would technically be a violation of EU law.
France is already imposing stringent checks at the border with Italy. Between February 23 and March 28, France intercepted 2,800 Tunisian migrants. It expelled 1,700 back to Italy, and 200 back to Tunisia. The rest are still being processed.
In an attempt to encourage Tunisians to stay in Tunisia, the European Commission has offered to double EU aid to Tunisia to €320m over the next two years. Italy is donating 10 boats and 100 off-road vehicles to improve their border patrols.
HOW EU COUNTRIES HAVE REACTED:
• Belgian immigration minister, Melchior Wathelet: "It is becoming necessary to check if people who arrive from other member states do indeed meet the criteria for entry on to our territory."
• French interior minister, Claude Gueant: "France has every right to send them back to Italy... That is what we will do."
• Germany's interior minister, Hans-Peter Friedrich: "We cannot accept that a lot of employment migrants enter Europe through Italy. It cannot be in the interest of Europe for us to be forced to introduce new controls, so we hope the Italians will fulfill their duties."
• Dutch minister for immigration and asylum, Geerd Leers: "This is not the way Europe should work. I was quite dissatisfied with Italy's surprise decision to pass on its problems to all the others without prior notice."
• Austria's interior minister, Maria Fekter: "Letting these people in would only pave the way for crime, and as minister in charge of security I cannot accept that." ·
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