Silvio Berlusconi threatened to allow a wave of immigrants from North Africa loose into Europe, citing a reluctance by fellow European Union member countries to help deal with up to 20,000 recent arrivals on Italy's shores.
The Italian prime minister has squarely blamed Tunisia — the country of origin of most of the 20,000 migrants who have arrived on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa since January — for failing to block migrants leaving its shores, but contends also that Italy is alone in facing what should be a European problem.
For its part, the European Commission on Friday told France that it was violating the EU's border-free Schengen system by sending North African migrants found near its southern frontier back over the border to Italy.
"There are no borders so they can't," EU Home Affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom told a news conference in Brussels when asked about the legality of French actions, DPA reported.
Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, meanwhile, lamented the "total refusal to cooperate" by Italy's neighbors and the EU, and warned that Rome may make it easier for immigrants to reach France and Germany, Reuters reported.
Italy was considering giving migrants temporary permits and setting up centers near Italy's borders so they can easily cross into other countries, Maroni and Berlusconi said. "Many immigrants have said they want to reach relatives in France and Germany and other countries," Berlusconi reportedly said. "We can give them the possibility to circulate freely in Europe."
The two plan to visit Tunis on Monday to demand that the government do more to stop migrants leaving its shores, and that it take back repatriated migrants. "It's in Tunisia's interests to keep its young workers at home," Berlusconi said after meeting ministers in Rome, Reuters reported.
The influx is due to a relaxation of border controls in Tunisia stemming from the ouster of hardline president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and resulting end to a police state, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
The EU has offered to double its aid to Tunisia's poorest regions, as the number of migrants on the tiny Mediterranean island reached 20,000.
Malmstrom, just returned from a two-trip to Tunisia, reportedly said that Tunisian authorities were willing to cooperate on "a well-managed, organized and gradual repatriation of Tunisian nationals," and said the EU would grant financial support.
The EU's enlargement chief, Stefan Fule, said in Tunis on Thursday that the bloc was ready to double its aid, to encourage civil society in Tunisia, from $160 million ($219 million) to €320 million over the next two years.
Italian press reports indicated that each migrant would be given 1,500 euros ($2,100 dollars) in return for repatriation, with grants partly funded by the EU.
Malmstrom said negotiations were ongoing to convince EU countries to give asylum to "the few thousands, mainly Somali, Eritrean and Sudanese" refugees in Libya and Tunisia who cannot be returned to their countries because of armed conflict, DPA reported.
Berlusconi on Wednesday pledged to rid Lampedusa of North African migrants — who now outnumber the local population — by the weekend. On Friday, however, he told reporters that rough seas were hampering the plan.
Weathering bad press from an impending sex trial, Berlusconi visited Lampedusa on Wednesday to oversee the evacuation of migrants using a Navy ship and a commercial ferry.
Amnesty International on Friday criticized the Italian government over its handling of the migrant influx.
"The crisis has been created by the Italian government's failure to respond adequately to the situation here in Lampedusa," Charlotte Phillips, a representative of Amnesty's Refugees and Migrants Program said, Reuters reported. "Tunisians have been unable to access the most basic of rights including access to adequate shelter or any shelter at all, sanitary conditions and so on."
And Medical charity Doctors Without Borders said there were 16 chemical toilets for a migrant population that has regularly outnumbered Lampedusa's normal population of 5,000. The migrants each received just 1.5 liters of water a day, compared with the recommended standard of 20 liters, it said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Tunisian rescuers reportedly recovered the bodies of 27 would-be migrants headed for Italy which sank in the Mediterranean, the Tunisian news agency TAP reported. The migrants were aged from 19 to 43, TAP reported, citing the Interior Ministry. It was unclear how many people survived.
— Freya Petersen