In an attempt to defuse a diplomatic row, Italy and France agreed Friday to jointly patrol Tunisia’s coast to try to curb the flow of migrants who have been heading to Europe, many hoping to reach France via the Italian island of Lampedusa.
AFP - Italy and France agreed Friday to carry out joint patrols off Tunisia's coast to block migrants headed for Europe, with the French interior minister saying there was no "duty" to take in the boat people.
Following the arrival of thousands of migrants from the former French colony in recent weeks, Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said after meeting French counterpart Claude Gueant that there would now be "joint air and sea patrols".
Gueant said the EU's border agency Frontex would control these patrols.
"Neither Italy nor France has a duty to host the migrants," the French minister said, while Maroni called for "joint action" by Europe on immigration.
A diplomatic row between Italy and France has escalated after Italy on Thursday agreed to grant six-month residence permits to more than 20,000 mostly Tunisian migrants and said this would allow them to travel around Europe.
Many of the migrants arriving on the Italian island of Lampedusa say they want to travel to France and hundreds have been arriving in the Italian town of Ventimiglia on the border with France, which has been sending them back.
Gueant earlier said that France did not want to "suffer a wave" of migrants and stressed that even those armed with permits would not be allowed to cross into France if they did not have identity papers and sufficient funds.
"We have agreed on the interpretation of the Schengen treaty," Gueant said on Friday, adding there was "complete agreement with Roberto Maroni".
"It's clear that the residence permits the Italians will give allow freedom of movement but this is limited by the conditions defined by the treaty."
Gueant said that Italy and France would also grant Tunisia economic aid.
The EU's Schengen visa-free zone -- which includes all of the European Union member states except for Britain and Ireland -- has gradually eased internal border controls within Europe while beefing up external borders.
A total of 25,800 undocumented migrants on 390 boats have arrived in Italy so far this year, including around 21,000 who said they were from Tunisia.
Many of the Tunisians said they were fleeing a dire economic situation after the ouster of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January.
The row between France and Italy dominated Italian newspaper headlines.
"Paris and Rome at War" "Italy-France Confrontation" "Row with France" read some of the headlines, with Corriere della Sera daily accusing France of "duplicity" and Il Giornale saying that the migrants were "a human bomb".
France "is questioning the spirit of a treaty and one of the fundamental points of the European system," Corriere della Sera said.
Several commentators argued that France's intransigence over the migrants was dictated by the rise of the far-right National Front.
Party leader Marine Le Pen has been put ahead of French President Nicolas Sarkozy in some recent opinion polls for the 2012 election.
"The French domestic situation is having a major effect with the fact that Marine Le Pen, leader of a xenophobic right, has become one of the favourites," Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said in an interview.
Immigration is set to top the agenda at a summit between President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in Rome on April 26.
Maroni struck a deal with Tunisia earlier this month under which migrants who have already arrived will receive permits but any new arrivals will be deported under a new arrangement that facilitates expulsions.
As part of the agreement with Tunisia, a first plane left Lampedusa late Thursday for Tunis carrying some 30 migrants.
Italy has also agreed to provide Tunisia with boats and jeeps to step up its coastal patrols and prevent more migrants from leaving its coasts.
France detained 2,800 undocumented Tunisian migrants in March alone, Gueant said on Thursday, adding that most had already been sent back to Italy.