EU offers Italy help to stem migration from Tunisia

BRUSSELS Tue Feb 15, 2011 12:46pm EST

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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union on Tuesday offered Italy money and other assistance to cope with the flood of migrants trying to reach EU shores and to help those who have already arrived in Europe.

It put no figure on the funds offered.

According to EU estimates some 5,500 Tunisians have reached Italy in recent days, escaping turmoil in the aftermath of protests that led to the overthrow of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali on January 14. The flow of migrants has sparked a diplomatic row between Italy and Tunisia and has led Rome to ask for EU assistance.

"We are ready to assist both Italy and Tunisia. This is a matter of great importance for the EU," Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmstrom said in a speech.

Malmstrom said the number of people reaching Italy, who are mostly men in their 30s, has "reportedly" dropped in the last 24 hours.

She said the EU could allocate emergency cash to help Italy pay for accommodation, medical care, social assistance and counseling for migrants, and send officers to help process asylum requests.

The EU could also send a team from its border control agency Frontex to help with border surveillance.

Malmstrom also urged the Tunisian authorities to bolster border patrols to "prevent smugglers, human traffickers, and criminals escaped from prisons to take advantage of the situation."

"It is also important that Tunisia accept taking back those who have reached the territory of EU member states without being in need of international protection," she said.

The EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said she was seeking at least 2.5 billion euros ($3.4 billion) to help Tunisia, Egypt and other North African states. This would include 1 billion euros of European Investment Bank lending to Tunisia alone.

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