Monday, 14 February 2011

Tunisian refugees overwhelming Italy

Egypt may have stolen the spotlight from the revolution in Tunisia, but the situation there is still in chaos. Since the uprising that overthrew long-time President/Dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali there have been strikes and clashes on the streets and a state of lawlessness still exists as many police officers have abandoned their posts.

Amid all of this Italy said this weekend a flood of Tunisian refugees coming across the Mediterranean Sea have overwhelmed the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, just off the Tunisian coast. More Tunisian immigrants have arrived on the island in the past week there are residents of the island, they say.

But the situation seems to be mired in confusion and perhaps not a small amount of exaggeration. Though the Italian foreign minister claims that he asked for EU help in stemming the flow of migrants on Saturday, today a European Commission spokesperson said there has been no such request from Italy. In fact, he said, the EU offered Italy assistance but the Italian government refused it. So they were "surprised" by the foreign minister's comments, he said.

In any event, Italy is now asking that the EU employ the Frontex EU border patrol at its southern sea borders. Such operations have taken place in the past, but they were ended after prime minister Berlusconi signed a bilateral agreement with Colonel Gaddafi to conduct border patrol between the two countries. But a formal Frontex request has yet to be made, and even once it is it could take weeks of planning to make it happen, because each EU member state has to agree how much they will contribute.

Italy may not have that kind of time to spare. The Italian authorities say 4,000 people came this weekend alone to Lampedusa, and are being temporarily held there on a football field. Lampedusa, which is closer to Tunisia than to the Italian mainland, is one of two Italian islands that lie just off the African coast. The other is Pantelleria, which lies just 160km from the Tunisian coast. Both islands have belonged to Europe since they were captured from the Arabs by the Normans in 1143.

The problems illustrate the extent to which Tunisia is likely to become the "revolution in Europe's backyard" while the Egyptian revolution remains largely an American preoccupation. The EU has a keen interest in how things play out in Tunisia over the next year, and not just because of its geographic proximity but also because the country is so closely connected culturally to France. It also represents the extent to which the increasing unrest around the Mediterranean is going to be a major foreign policy and immigration challenge for the EU in the coming months.

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