Tunisian 'exodus' exposes Europe's migrant quandary

The mass landing of Tunisian illegal migrants on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa has highlighted the European Union’s continuing struggle to find a coordinated approach to the hot-button issue of immigration.


The Italian government declared a humanitarian emergency and appealed for EU help on Sunday, after the arrival of some 4,000 Tunisian migrants on the island of Lampedusa raised fears of an influx of asylum seekers and exposed Europe’s lack of coordination on the issue.

Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, a member of the anti-immigration Northern League party, called the migration a "biblical exodus" and blasted the European Union for leaving Italy to confront the situation alone.

The Italian authorities have reopened an immigrant processing centre on the small Mediterranean island to deal with the massive wave of arrivals. But with a capacity of only 800 people, the centre soon proved insufficient. Half the migrants have already been transferred to other reception centres on the mainland to avoid overcrowding and water shortage.

"I have asked for urgent intervention by the European Union because the Maghreb is exploding," Maroni said, referring to the north African region that has been swept by a wave of popular unrest in recent weeks.

Writing in her blog on Monday, Cecilia Malmstrom, the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, said she was “very surprised by the recent press statement by some Italian authorities on the alleged bureaucratic and slow response by the European Commission.”

Malstrom wrote: “I had personal contacts with the Italian authorities already on Saturday and I asked if they needed our help to cope with these exceptional circumstances. Their reply was clear: no thanks, we do not need the European Commission’s assistance at this stage."

In a statement published on its website, FRONTEX, the European agency tasked with assisting member states in improving border security, also said that as of Monday, it had not received a formal request for assistance from the Italian government.


According to Flavio Di Giacomo, a spokesperson for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), most of the migrants were men in their 20s and 30s, but there were also a few minors and women. When asked why they had left Tunisia, some mentioned concerns over the security situation while others pointed at the country’s economic collapse.

Roughly two thirds of the Tunisians in Lampedusa claim they want to go on to France, Giacomo said, adding that this massive exodus was unprecedented and could only be tackled at the European level.

The mass landings in Lampedusa prompted rapid reactions from European leaders, who are eager to demonstrate a hard stance against irregular immigration and who have struggled to carve out a unified EU policy on the issue.

“There can be no tolerance for illegal immigration,” French Industry Minister Eric Besson told Canal+ television on Monday. Besson, a former immigration minister, said some of the Tunisians in Italy might have legitimate asylum claims, but that each case would be treated separately.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed a similar sentiment on Monday, saying that "not everyone who does not want to be in Tunisia can come to Europe".

According to the IOM spokesman in Lampedusa, there have been no new arrivals of Tunisians since Sunday evening. “No one is sure why there have been no more arrivals, maybe rough waters or increased surveillance by the Tunisian coastguard,” Di Giacomo told FRANCE 24.

The power vacuum following the fall of president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali has been blamed for the lapse in coastline security that allowed the fleeing Tunisians to reach the shores of Lampedusa.

The flow of illegal migrants to Italy has dropped substantially since 2008, when Rome signed a bilateral agreement with Libyan authorities under which the authoritarian African state agreed to return would-be migrants without screening them first for asylum. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has condemned that policy as a violation of the right to seek asylum and flee oppression, humanitarian crises and war.

On Monday, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the EU’s top rights body, said Italy must not expel the thousands of immigrants that have arrived in Lampedusa.

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