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EU frets over fleeing Tunisians

After Italy requests aid for flood of immigrants landing on Lampedusa island, other EU nations balk.

Eu italy tunisian migrants lampedusa 02 18 2011Enlarge
Tunisian immigrants stand in front of a reception center on the island of Lampedusa, Italy on Feb. 14, 2011. (Roberto Salomone/AFP/Getty Images)

BRUSSELS, Belgium — The European Union encouraged Tunisians to cast off their decades of oppression.

“The EU is wholeheartedly behind the Tunisian people’s aspirations for freedom and democracy,” declared EU High Representative Catherine Ashton on her trip there this week. A January resolution by the European Parliament applauded protesters’ brave efforts to achieve “better social conditions and easier access to employment.”

But as events have unfolded, one point has apparently been lost on the Tunisians: that the EU wants them to have freedom, democracy, employment and better social conditions, just inside their own country.

No one in Brussels meant to inspire — nor predicted — the arrival of more than 5,000 Tunisians on the EU’s doorstep over the last couple of weeks. But the Italian island of Lampedusa, just 70 miles off the Tunisian coast, has proved an enticing gateway in the North African country’s post-revolution chaos. Pooling their meager life savings ― or paying it to smugglers — Tunisians en masse have chosen to risk dangerous flight in rickety boats instead of waiting to see what develops in the aftermath of their January ouster of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

EU laws mandates that migrants be processed by the first country they arrive in. Given the record-busting numbers, Italy’s Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, started asking Brussels for back-up last weekend.

Maroni wasn’t just appealing for empathy. The “principle of solidarity” is part of the EU’s fundamental law and Article 80 of its “Treaty on Functioning” evokes this principle specifically with regard to matters of “border checks, asylum and immigration.”

Maroni, opposed to immigration even in the best of times, demanded that EU heads of state hold an emergency session to consider the Tunisian refugees as a pan-European crisis. In addition, Italy asked Frontex, the EU’s border-security agency, to send more vessels to patrol the Mediterranean. Maroni also asked the European Commission to chip in 100 million euros ($135 million) for the costs of immediate accommodation and expected deportations.

EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom agreed “this is, yes, a European responsibility and that’s why we have to come up with European solutions.” Malmstrom promised to fast-track funding to the Italians. “We are ready to mobilize extraordinary assistance under the European refugee fund for 2011 in addition to the funding already marked for Italy,” she told an emergency session devoted to this issue in the European Parliament. “This should cover payments, for instance, for accommodation, infrastructure, material aid, medical care, social assistance, counseling with the judicial, administrative asylum procedures, legal aid and language assistance.”

Malmstrom said other accounts could also be tapped if needed and that personnel could be sent to help with humanitarian needs, including screening applicants for asylum.

Quick cash to feed and house the masses isn’t the only help Rome wants from Brussels; it also wants other EU member states to accommodate some of the migrants during processing of their expected requests for asylum. However, governments including Austria, France and Germany have already announced they don’t plan to relax their visa requirements for migrants from Tunisia. An Austrian foreign ministry spokesman said his country didn’t see a “need” to do so.

Attitudes like this provoke rage in the countries most vulnerable to the influxes.