April 11, 2011 / 6:17 PM / 6 years ago

Italy quarrels with EU partners over Libyan migrants

LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) - Italy quarreled with other European Union governments on Monday over how to handle thousands of migrants fleeing violence in north Africa, while the EU executive urged the bloc to do more for the refugees.

Divisions have deepened among the 27 EU governments on how to tackle the refugee crisis in the region, with some capitals worried that offering shelter to too many migrants will encourage more to attempt illegal entry to Europe.

But the European Commission has said EU capitals need to overcome differences and prepare to resettle some of the almost half a million people displaced by violence so far.

Italy has borne the brunt of the crisis and wants other EU governments to help it care for some 25,000 people who have arrived on its shores as a result of turmoil in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt.

At a meeting of EU interior ministers in Luxembourg to discuss migration pressures, Italy’s Roberto Maroni accused his counterparts of failing to show solidarity with Rome.

“Italy has been left alone,” he said. “I wonder whether in this situation it makes sense to remain in the European Union.”

Most EU governments say people arriving in Italy are mostly economic migrants seeking jobs in Europe, and not asylum seekers or refugees in need of international protection.

They say Rome should be able to deal with them, and have reacted angrily to Italy’s decision to start offering them temporary residence permits that would allow them to travel freely in most of the EU.

“I was quite dissatisfied with Italy’s surprise decision to pass on its problems to all the others without prior notice,” Dutch minister for immigration and asylum Gerd Leers said.

Austria’s interior minister Maria Fekter said Vienna would investigate how it can stop migrants from crossing its borders.

“We will look into what extent we will recognize visas issued by Italians, especially whether we allow in people who cannot feed themselves,” she said. “This would be a feeding ground for crime which I cannot allow.”

RISING PRESSURES

However, the EU’s home affairs commissioner, Cecilia Malmstrom, warned EU governments would have to consider taking in more people from north Africa in the future, while stressing the bloc had already assisted Italy with funds and equipment.

She pressed interior ministers to offer shelter to thousands of refugees stranded at Libya’s border with Tunisia, mostly poor foreign workers from Asia and other parts of Africa who had worked on Libya’s oil fields and construction sites.

Aid agencies have repatriated most of them to their countries of origin but several thousand, such as Somalis and Eritreans, cannot be sent back because of unrest at home.

“There is war in Libya and more people will flee. We need to prepare,” she told reporters.

Malmstrom has failed to secure sufficient offers from EU capitals to resettle 800 people stranded on Malta, a tiny EU member state.

“Resettlement from Tunisia is a no-go area for most EU states. It is politically unrealistic,” said on EU diplomat familiar with Monday’s discussions.

Ministers agreed on Monday on the need to find more cash for the bloc’s border control agency, Frontex, to strengthen its ability to patrol the Mediterranean Sea.

Reporting by Justyna Pawlak; editing by Andrew Roche

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