News / Europe

Italy Seeks EU Assistance to Deal With Refugee Influx

Would-be migrants believed to be from Tunisia are seen on the shores of the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, Italy, after arriving there by boat, February 11, 2011
Would-be migrants believed to be from Tunisia are seen on the shores of the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, Italy, after arriving there by boat, February 11, 2011

The Italian government is seeking help from European Union member states to deal with an influx of refugees as the wave of unrest spreads in North Africa.  Some European agencies estimate that as many as 1.5 million refugees could come to Italy to escape the turmoil in their home countries.  European states are divided on how to deal with the problem.

Hoping to escape the chaos from the uprisings in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, boatloads of illegal immigrants battle the choppy waters of the Mediterranean Sea looking for safe harbor.

Italy's Guardia di Finanza, which normally patrol these waters for drug smugglers, says more than 6,000 refugees have already been detained in the island of Lampedusa, about 120 kilometers from Tunisia.

At a meeting of European interior ministers in Belgium Thursday, Italian Minister Roberto Maroni predicted more would arrive soon.

"The invasion of one million to 1.5 million refugees in Italy, to take estimates by Frontex [EU border protection agency] yesterday, would bring any state to its knees," he said.

Maroni wants the EU to establish a solidarity fund to assist countries that are the first to absorb the influx of refugees.

The ministers welcome the spirit of democracy sweeping through North Africa, but they are split on how to deal with the consequences.

Germany and Austria believe the estimates are exaggerated but Spanish Interior Minister Alfredo Rubalcaba says a unified response is needed.

"What we cannot do is to think that the migrants who arrived in Italy this week, arrived in Italy," he said.  "No, they arrived in Europe, because Italy is a gateway to Europe and that's why we need to approach this problem together because this is a problem we all share."

The unrest spreading throughout the Arab world is bound to have significant economic implications for the region.  But speaking in Washington Wednesday, Tunisia's newly appointed central bank governor, Mustapha Nabli, said Europe stands to benefit from the wave of new workers.

"We have looked at the numbers and there is a good match actually in terms of demographics for Europe to absorb significant numbers of laborers from North Africa," he said.  "So it is a positive sum game, it is not a negative sum game."

Ministers argue additional manpower and space will be required to deal with the mass exodus. There is also fear the tubulence could create an opening for terrorist groups.

But many of the migrants say all they seek is liberty and the chance for a better life.  One Tunisian man said he paid 500 euro for a 15-hour journey in a small boat crammed with 200 migrants.

"We are searching for freedom and to integrate into the society," he said. "We are not terrorists or thieves. We are people looking for a better life."

Many will not have that chance.  Migrants who arrived in Lampedusa, Italy illegally are being detained in temporary compounds before they are slowly returned to their homes.

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