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18th Sep 2020

Italy asks for EU help in blocking Tunisian refugees

  • The image dreaded by Rome: boats full of migrants (Photo: nobordernetwork)

The Italian government has declared a state of emergency and asked for EU help in blocking thousands of Tunisians from reaching its shores.

"I will ask Tunisia's foreign minister for authorisation for our forces to intervene in Tunisia to block the influx," interior minister Roberto Maroni said in an Italian television interview on Sunday (13 February), a day after the Italian cabinet declared a state of emergency and called for help from the European Union to stop what it calls "illegal immigrants."

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Some 3,000 people from Tunisia arrived over the weekend on the Italian island of Lampedusa following the ousting of Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in recent days, according to Rome.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi signed a bilateral deal with the Tunisian strongman in 2009 to keep a lid on immigration from the rest of Africa. With the departure of Mr Ben Ali, Rome is desperate to ensure continutity with the new government, but many issues remain in flux with the post-revolutionary government.

Italian authorities have been directing migrants to a Lampedusa soccer field. Hundreds sleep under open skies in its port, wrapped in space blankets. Local hotels and churches have also offered accommodation. Despite the good weather and calm sea, allowing most migrants to cross the Mediterranean safely, one boat sank off Tunisia's coast on Saturday, with at least one migrant reported dead and one missing.

Tunisia's interim foreign minister, Ahmed Ounaies, has meanwhile stepped down over the affair. Less than two weeks ago, he had met EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Brussels and pledged to continue his country's policy of liberalisation and the prevention of irregular migration.

Ms Ashton is due to arrive in Tunisia on Monday, trying to focus more on the EU assistance given to the democratic reforms there than on the row with Italy. But the issue is unlikely to be swept under the carpet.

Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini, himself a former EU commissioner for justice and home affairs, told Corriere della Sera he had contacted Ms Ashton to propose a blockade of Tunisian ports by the EU's border agency, Frontex, so that it could "mobilise patrols and refoulement [the forcible return of would-be migrants to their country of departure]".

A similar exercise was carried out by Italy when 15,000 Albanians arrived in 1991, he said. "I hope the Tunisian authorities accept the Albanian model," Mr Frattini added.

Anti-immigration policies lie at the core of Mr Berlusconi's government. He has sealed similar deals with other authoritative regimes, such as Tunisia's neighbouring Libya, irrespective of the abuses and bad treatment of refugees.

The domino-type political changes and social unrest in north-African countries means only one thing to Italian officials: more irregular immigrants.

"There's a political and institutional earthquake that risks having a devastating impact on Europe through Italy," interior minister Maroni, a member of the strongly anti-immigrant Northern League, said on Sunday.

As for EU home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom, she is "in contact" with both Frontex and the EU asylum support office in looking at how they can assist the Italian authorities, a spokeswoman told AFP.

In a new development in November last year, Frontex pooled several helicopters, busses and some 200 border guards from EU countries and sent them on a land-border mission at the request of the Greek authorities unable to cope with migrants crossing the Turkish frontier.

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