EU frets over fleeing Tunisians

Tunisian immigrants stand in front of a reception center on the island of Lampedusa, Italy on Feb. 14, 2011.</p>

Tunisian immigrants stand in front of a reception center on the island of Lampedusa, Italy on Feb. 14, 2011.

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.

Member of the European Parliament David Casa of Malta is among the most disturbed. His tiny island is the next EU territory beyond Lampedusa. Referring to the fact that Italy flew thousands of the migrants to its mainland to relieve the crowding on Lampedusa, Casa exclaimed, “God forbid those people come to Malta because we would have a much bigger tragedy! Those who come to Malta have to remain in Malta and Malta cannot be extended.”

“We have to see real commitment from the member states, more solidarity,” Casa said, “in particular from the northern European countries. We are not seeing this solidarity.”

Amid the tension between member states, Malmstrom reminded that more than principles are at stake in the debate about what to do with the Lampedusa overflow. “We must pay specific attention to vulnerable categories or persons in need of international protection,” she said.

That’s the part that worries human-rights watchdogs such as the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Spokeswoman Melissa Fleming she was particularly concerned that the huge crush of simultaneous arrivals will make it hard for worthy cases to stand out and qualify for refugee status, especially because the vast majority of the arrivals ― all but about 200 children and 50 women, according to Fleming ― are young men who openly admit they’re looking for work, not generally a status that qualifies for protection.

In order to qualify for a protected status, according to the UNHCR, refugees need to prove they are fleeing from persecution, conflict or indiscriminate violence. Economic migrants, meanwhile, are just looking for a better life.

Both types of migrants often arrive on the same boat. Fleming said this “mixed migration” is happening more and more often. “We’re asking countries to be sensitive to this,” she said, because it’s probable that “there will be some arriving from Egypt and Tunisia who deserve asylum, or at a minimum deserve a hearing to see if they have a right to asylum.” So far, Fleming said, the Italian government’s actions have indicated they will try to be selective about who gets sent back to Tunisia.

And the frequent reminders about the “principle of solidarity” may be having some impact; though EU heads of state have yet to agree to Italy’s insistence they convene on this subject, foreign ministers have decided to come to Brussels Sunday night to discuss it.