21st Sep 2020

Italy and EU trade barbs on Lampedusa migrants

  • Berlusconi wants to buy up the old Tunisian boats and start a fishing business 'when I'm out of politics' (Photo: Valentina Pop)

Italy on Wednesday (30 March) accused the EU of "inertia" in helping to relocate the north African migrants currently overcrowding its tiny island of Lampedusa, where premier Berlusconi made populist promises of swift evacuations and nominated the island for the Nobel peace prize.

"At this time, Europe is completely inert," Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini said in an interview with Sky TV. He dismissed the previous offers for additional funding made by the EU commission and said the matter was not about extra money, but about a "plan to distribute among member-states a sudden massive influx of refugees," similar to the one experienced by Italy.

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Since most of the Tunisians arriving in Lampedusa are economic migrants looking for jobs in France, the EU should also assist Italy with their repatriation, Frattini added. He also lashed out at Paris for "not showing solidarity" and sending Tunisians back to Italy.

Under EU law, governments can send back only asylum applicants, not irregular migrants, to the first country of arrival. An exception so far has been made only concerning Greece, where reception conditions for asylum seekers are more horrendous than in Italy.

An EU commission spokesman in Brussels meanwhile rebuffed the Italian complaints, saying that "funds are made available," with €80 million allocated in 2010 and 2011 for border assistance, repatriations and refugee aid last year, on top of €25 million of emergency funds handed to all EU member states.

EU home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom, while on a trip in Tunisia, told AFP that she was working on convincing the new government in Tunis to sign a readmission agreement which would allow the migrants to be sent back to their home country.

As for Frattini's suggestion to make up a plan for other member states to take in some immigrants, Malmstrom said: "The European Commission can only encourage them. It cannot force states to take in people."

Frattini's comments came just hours before Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi made a snap visit to the island of Lampedusa, making generous promises of evacuating the migrants within 48-60 hours, offering economic sweeteners for the local tourism and fishing industry and "nominating Lampedusa for the Nobel peace prize."

But even as Berlusconi was paraphrasing the famous John F. Kennedy quote by saying "I am a Lampedusan," to the ovations of a small crowd, another boat with some 100 migrants arrived on the dock, boosting the ranks of the 6,000 migrants outnumbering the regular inhabitants of the island.

Berlusconi also told Lampedusans he had bought a villa there and joked about buying up the migrants' boats piling up in the old port: "That way when I am out of politics I will use them to set up a fresh fish business."

Not everybody acclaimed the Berlusconi pledges. In Puglia, on the Italian mainland, a mayor rendered his resignation, along with Italy's deputy interior minister, as a makeshift shelter located there, which should have been capped at 1,500 migrants from Lampedusa, was set to receive an extra 1,400 following the Berlusconi plan.

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