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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.

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.