Belgium and France have threatened to bring back border controls for travellers from Italy after Rome said it would give thousands of newly-arrived north African migrants permission to roam throughout the European Union.
The threats came at a tense meeting of EU interior ministers in Luxembourg on Monday, which highlighted the depth of division over how to deal with more than 25,000 migrants who have reached European shores since political unrest gripped North Africa.
The migrant influx has put a strain on the EU’s Schengen agreement which, from 1995, ended border patrols between most of the bloc’s member states.
Mediterranean countries, led by Italy, have argued for months that other European countries should share the burden of the arrivals and agree to resettle some of the migrants. Under EU rules, migrants seeking refuge or awaiting deportation cannot leave the country in which they first set foot.
But Rome has sought to circumvent the rules by granting “humanitarian” temporary residence permits to thousands of Tunisian refugees, making them eligible – in its eyes – to travel throughout the Schengen area.
It is that decision which prompted France and Belgium to raise the prospect of resurrecting borders in the EU.
“It is becoming necessary to check if people who arrive from other member states do indeed meet the criteria for entry on to our territory,” said Melchior Wathelet, Belgium’s immigration minister.
France, for its part, unveiled measures to bolster police checks near its frontier with Italy, flouting the spirit if not the letter of the Schengen accord, which bans systematic border checks.
Its non-systematic border checks have in the past month alone intercepted 2,800 Tunisians coming in from Italy, 1,700 of which have been sent back there and 200 straight back to Tunisia. The rest are being processed.
Nicolas Sarkozy, French president, and Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s prime minister, are to meet to discuss the the issue on April 26.
Italy’s decision comes amid frustration that fellow member states are not heeding its calls for aid to cope with an influx of refugees from North Africa.
In recent weeks, Roberto Maroni, the interior minister, and other government officials have issued dire warnings about the refugee situation. But Rome’s action appears to have angered other governments, several of whom suspect it has overstated the extent of the problem.
“This is not the way Europe should work,” said Geerd Leers, the Dutch minister for immigration and asylum.
By contrast, some EU countries did agree to take some refugees from Malta, the EU’s smallest country by size and population, which has also repeatedly asked for assistance.
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