Boats from the European Union’s border patrol mission Frontex should send migrants found at sea straight back to Tunisia, rather than take them to Italy for identification, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon suggested on Thursday.
Italy has faced an influx of nearly 23,000 Tunisians since mid- January, when an autocratic regime in that country was toppled by popular protests. Most of them landed in Lampedusa, a tiny island straining under the pressure.
‘To avoid those situations that lead Frontex vessels to salvage clandestines at sea and take them to Lampedusa, it would be more intelligent to take them directly to Tunisia,’ Fillon said after talks in Brussels with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.
Fillon’s proposal could prove controversial, as the internationally recognized non-refoulement principle states that authorities cannot push back migrants without checking first for the presence of asylum-seekers.
Barroso did not comment upon Fillon’s idea, but said he told Tunisian authorities during a visit on Tuesday that it was in their interest to help control migration to avoid such a ‘sensitive’ issue being hijacked by ‘certain populist, extremist forces’ in EU countries.
France’s Front National and Italy’s Northern League are among the right-wing parties wooing voters with tough anti-immigration slogans.
In February, Frontex launched a patrol mission in the Mediterranean to curb migratory flows towards Italy and Malta. Last week the French Interior Minister agreed with his Italian counterpart that France would contribute to the exercise.
The deal came amid tensions between the two countries over Italy’s decision to grant temporary residence permits to North African migrants, in a bid to ease the pressure on its administration by allowing them to travel within the EU’s border-free Schengen area.
Fillon reiterated his country’s criticism of that policy.
‘First of all, the rules must be applied, there is no rule that says that clandestine economic migrants should be welcomed and should move freely across the European territory,’ he said.
‘Therefore, a large part of the Tunisians citizens that have arrived in Italy should not, as some people suggest, be shared out among European countries, they should be sent back to their country,’ he insisted.
Italy has also asked–in vain–for the activation of an EU emergency mechanism to reallocate to other EU countries the small proportion of North African migrants who are in need of international protection, and thus have a right to stay in the bloc.
But Fillon indicated that France was already doing its part, claiming that it was processing 50,000 asylum requests per year compared to Italy’s 10,000.
‘Everybody should keep in mind these figures,’ he said.
According to the EU’s statistical agency, Eurostat, France in 2010 received 51,595 asylum applications, but granted international protection only to 5,115.
In the same year, Italy received 10,050 requests, and approved 4,305.