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5th Mar 2021

Tunisia's 'Biblical exodus' pits Rome against Brussels

EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS -Italy refused EU help in dealing with Tunisian migrants and its criticism of Brussels is "very surprising", EU home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said Monday (14 February). Meanwhile, Tunis deemed "unacceptable" a suggestion that Italian troops be sent to stop people from crossing the Mediterranean.

Ms Malmstrom was "very surprised" by the recent press statements of Italian officials, her spokesman, Michele Cercone said during a press conference in Brussels.

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  • Exodus: Some 4,000 people arrived from Tunisia over the past few days (Photo: noborder network)

Contrary to what Italian interior minister Roberto Maroni had suggested, that the EU commission is too slow and bureaucratic in helping out with the thousands of migrants arriving on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, Ms Malmstrom contacted Italian authorities on Saturday and asked if they needed help, said the official.

"Their reply was clear: 'No thanks, we do not need the European Commission's assistance at this stage'," Mr Cercone said, adding that despite this negative response, Ms Malmstrom proceeded in asking her own services, the EU border agency Frontex and the EU asylum support office to assess how the EU could support Italy.

Almost 5,000 people have arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa by boat over the last five days, an "exodus of biblical proportions" in the words of Mr Maroni. To Italy, home of 60 million inhabitants, the 'exodus' may seem relatively small. But to Lampedusa, where the local population is around 6,000, the recent migrant wave does pose problems. Rome has started to fly out people by helicopter and to ship them out to asylum centres in Sicily, but some 2,000 are still on the island, sleeping under an open sky.

"The European Commission is fully aware of the exceptional pressure on Italy and stands ready to support the Italian authorities and to show European solidarity," Mr Cercone added, without going into details as to what this support may be.

No troops, thank you

Meanwhile, a call by Italy's right-wing interior minister to send troops to Tunisia was deemed "unacceptable" by the north African country's new government.

The foreign ministry said Tunisia is willing to "co-operate with fraternal countries in order to identify solutions to this phenomenon", but added that it would not tolerate "interference in its internal affairs".

The issue is likely to put EU foreign policy chief Cahterine Ashton in a pickle, just as she kicks off her olive-branch-visit to the country one month after the ousting of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali during street protests which caused a domino effect throughout the region.

A spokeswoman for Ms Ashton said she "expects the issue to be raised in the talks" with the new Tunisian prime minister and minister for international co-operation and trade.

Italy and France fret

Italy's foreign minister, Franco Frattini, is also due to arrive in Tunis Monday night to hold bilateral talks on the immigration issue.

Meanwhile, France, home to another conservative EU government keen to curb irregular migration, is warning Tunisian migrants to stay home.

"There can be no tolerance for illegal immigration," said industry minister Eric Besson - previously in charge of the immigration dossier. He added, however, that some individuals might have the right to claim asylum in France, including supporters of the ousted dictator.

"What is important to us is to make sure these people are treated properly. All have the right to seek asylum," Judith Sunderland, a Human Rights Watch expert based in Milan told this website.

She warned against the dangers of labelling them all as "terrorists and criminals," as the Italian interior minister has done.

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