21st Oct 2016

Barroso warns of extremism in immigration debate

  • Protest against Lega Nord: the coalition party has suggested using weapons against immigrants (Photo: Cau Napoli)

European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso said it is in the interest of Tunisia to work with the EU on repatriating irregular migrants and prevent the immigration debate being hijacked by "populist and extremist" forces in Europe.

"Europe has to do more to preserve the Schengen area. In the past it was almost a sacrifice to cross borders, now it's a pleasure. But we have to implement the Schengen rules in a strict manner," Barroso said on Thursday (14 April) during a joint press briefing in Brussels with French Prime Minister Francois Fillon.

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"I launched an appeal to our Tunisian friends to help us solve these problems together. I don't think it is in the interest of third countries that there is a debate in Europe on such sensitive issues and that certain populist, extremist forces seek to take advantage of these problems," he added, in reference to his visit to Tunis earlier this week when he offered more EU money if the government agrees to clamp down on irregular migration.

Some 23,000 Tunisians have crossed the Mediterranean sea to the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa since January, when the dictator, Ben Ali, was ousted in a democratic uprising.

The interim government in Tunis was initially reluctant to take back more than four migrants a day until a deal was struck on 5 April with Italian interior minister Roberto Maroni, allowing some 60 people to be returned daily.

Still, the influx of boats from Tunisia to Lampedusa continue to outnumber the returns and the evacuation operations to the Italian mainland.

Two politicians from Maroni's anti-immigrant Lega Nord party - a coalition partner in Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right government - on Thursday suggested that weapons should be used against the migrants.

Speaking to an Italian broadcaster, deputy transport minister Roberto Castelli said Italy needed to protect itself against the "invasion."

"This problem could become so unbelievably big that we must ask ourselves if we need to use weapons," he said, as quoted by Deutsche Welle. "There is a risk this invasion could grow to millions or tens of millions."

In Brussels, his party colleague and MEP Francesco Speroni also said that "all means" including "weapons as a last resort" should be used to suppress the influx of people who are "violating Italy and her rules".

Both argued that if force was admissible in Libya, then the same should be true of the situation in Lampedusa.

"Europe uses weapons in the same setting in Libya. I don't understand why in one case weapons can be used, and not in another," said Speroni.

Back in March, a report on racism in Italy published by Human Rights Watch, an international NGO, highlighted the lack of interest in the Italian government in condemning hate speech and investigating reported hate crimes.

"In times of inflammatory rhetoric about these arrivals, nobody in the government is warning against racism, especially in the light of protests in local communities against the establishment of tents and temporary housing for the migrants," Judith Sunderland from HRW Italy told this website.

According to the report, Italian authorities are dragging their feet because they "fail to identify racist and xenophobic violence as a serious issue." Instead, racist violence is seen as "episodic and rare" and the targeted violence against African migrants minimised or excluded.

A representative of the local government of Tor Bella Monaca, the scene of numerous attacks on migrants over the past several years, told Human Rights Watch that these incidents "are not about racism, but rather a problem of cohabitation, of numbers."

The National Office against Racial Discrimination, a government body, only began tracking incidents of racist violence in September 2010.

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