European Commission to provide assistance to Italy over Tunisian migrants

BRUSSELS: The European Commission on Tuesday informed that the EU will assist Italy with the issue regarding thousands of Tunisian migrants who reached Italian soil in the last couple of days.

"The Commission is closely following the situation, and Frontex has sent two experts to the scene. Approximately 5,500 Tunisian migrants are reported to have reached Italian shores," said Cecilia Malmström, member of the European Commission.

Most of the migrants are men in their 30s but 34 women and 108 children have also traveled from Tunisia to the Lampedusa Island, near Sicily in southern Italy. On Monday, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini called for EU assistance.

Frattini also called for Tunisian authorities to establish border patrols to prevent the immigrant flows. The new Tunisian government, set after the dismissal of former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, vowed to cooperate but rejected the patrols' proposal.

Malmström said that Frontex could provide such border patrols and remarked that a combination of effective border management and a strategy for supporting democratic and economic transition is needed to solve the Tunisian migrants' situation.

"It is also important that Tunisia accept taking back those who have reached the territory of EU Member States without being in need of international protection or with no title to remain in the EU," added Malmström.

The European Union also vowed to support Italy on the migrant flow issue, as said by Piroska Bakos, spokesperson for the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Hungary is the current head of the Council of the European Union.

"The Presidency will pay close attention to the extraordinary situation at the Italian shores, and will cooperate with other EU institutions, including the Commission to provide Italy with all necessary assistance," said Bakos.

Malmström said that EU funds will be mobilized to assist Italy. Funds from the European Border Fund will be allocated for accommodation infrastructure; material aid and medical care; social assistance, counselling with administrative, judicial and eventually asylum procedures; legal aid and language assistance.

In addition, other measures will be taken as Frontex is cooperating with the Commission in identifying further actions for the short and medium term. Malmström added that the EU response should be based on the principle of EU solidarity between Member States.

Since the Tunisian revolution began in December, thousands of Tunisians continue to travel the 115-kilometer crossing to the island of Lampedusa, which is closer to Africa than to Italy. The number of immigrants has significantly surpassed the port capacities of Lampedusa and Sicily.

North African immigrants have attempted to reach Italian coasts in small fishing boats, but the Italian coast guard is preventing entry and returning them to the harbors of Lampedusa.


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