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France Offers Tough Response to Illegal Tunisian Immigrants

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 (File Photo - February 11, 2011)

Some of the thousands of illegal Tunisian immigrants who have landed in Italy this month have headed on to France, where they have not exactly received a warm welcome.

France has not experienced the same massive numbers of Tunisian immigrants who have overwhelmed the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa. But some of them have since crossed Italy's border, hoping for a better life here.

Refugee rights advocate Jean Francois Bloquin says many left the North African country for economic reasons.

Bloquin told French radio these immigrants are seeking jobs, not political protection. Economic hardship was among the factors driving protests in the North African country that ultimately ousted long-time president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

While France and other European countries have promised assistance to help Tunisia get back on its feet, they have also vowed to step up coastal patrols to prevent more illegals from crossing the Mediterranean.

France's European affairs minister, Laurent Wauquiez, echoes the government's line - that these Tunisians will be treated like any other economic migrants. That usually means deporting those who arrive here illegally.

As Paris adopts a tough stance toward Tunisian immigrants, it is trying to improve ties with its former colony following a series of diplomatic gaffes. On Saturday, hundreds of people protested in Tunis against France's new ambassador to Tunisia, after he responded testily to a journalist. The ambassador, Boris Boillon, has apologized.