Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Arab revolts raise new immigration fears in Europe

Boats full of illegals arriving fresh from the prisons of Tunis: Just what Italy needs

Europe voiced fears Monday about a new wave of illegal immigration after Libya threatened to break its cooperation on controlling the flow and more Tunisians landed on Italian shores.

With thousands fleeing from Tunisia to Italy in the past 10 days after a revolution ousted Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, European governments reacted with anger and dread after Libya warned that it could suspend its cooperation in retaliation for the EU's condemnation of a crackdown on protesters.

Heading into an EU foreign ministers meeting on the turmoil in the Arab world, German European Affairs Minister Werner Hoyer condemned the Libyan threat and said the EU would "not allow itself to be blackmailed".

Italy, an entry gate for African migrants seeking a better life in Europe, struck a controversial bilateral agreement with Tripoli last year allowing the Italian navy to intercept boat people and return them to Libya.

The European Commission has held talks with Libya for a broader cooperation deal and offered up to 50 million euros (70 million dollars) in aid last year, but no money has been disbursed so far, a commission spokesman said.

"We are extremely concerned about the evolution of the situation in North Africa," said Michele Cercone, spokesman for European home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem, who visited Libya in October to agree a cooperation agenda.

Libyan officials summoned the Hungarian ambassador last week to warn that they would suspend cooperation if the 27-nation bloc continues to "encourage" protests.

Belgian Foreign Minister Steven Vanackere admitted that the threat made "many people nervous" but he dismissed it as ridiculous. However, diplomats warned that if Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi falls, the floodgates to illegal immigration could blow wide open.

As more Tunisian migrants arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa on Monday, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini voiced fears that the Libyan unrest and other revolts across the region could increase the pressure. "We Europeans are very concerned about the migratory flows impact, that would be one of the consequences of the turbulences," Frattini told reporters.

Warning that Europe would be "paying the price" of economic collapse in Arab nations, he called for an EU pact to help improve the lives of people in the region, a sort of "Marshall Plan", in reference to the US-led reconstruction programme for Europe after World War II.

The upheaval in its southern neighbourhood marks a new test for European solidarity regarding migration flows, following years of unresolved debate about how to handle the issue. The EU at the weekend launched a mission to help Italy cope with the Lampedusa problem, supplying 30 people, a plane and ships.

"With the migratory pressure centred in some countries -- Greece, Malta, Italy and Spain -- we cannot say to them, 'you're on you're own," said France's European Affairs Minister Laurent Wauquiez. "If we have common borders, we have to exercise community solidarity," he said, noting that 25 European nations share a passport-free travel zone.

The ministers agreed to establish a new partnership with the region to support reform movements and issued conclusions stressing "the importance of strengthened cooperation with Mediterranean countries to address illegal immigration".
EU home affairs ministers will meet Thursday to discuss how to further help Italy with its immigration problem.

"We all agree that very special attention must be paid and very special efforts must be deployed regarding the emergency situation created by the influx of immigrants, for the time being, from Tunisia," said Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi whose currently holds the EU presidency.


Ship stowaways in Canada must prove identity

Two stowaways discovered aboard a ship in Halifax harbour last week will be in custody for at least another seven days. The Immigration Refugee Board ruled that the men can't be released because they lack proper identification, said Julie Chamagne, executive director of the Halifax Refugee Clinic.

Chamagne, who represented the men at a closed-door hearing Monday at the Central Nova Correctional Facility, said the two men will appear again in seven days to see if they have identification documents.

The men speak Arabic, Chamagne said, but she doesn't know what country they're from. "If there is a lack of identification, the only thing I can do is show they have been compliant, show they have support to try and and find an alternative to detention," she said. "But, if identity hasn't been satisfied, there is no chance of release."

The men were found last Wednesday aboard the Swedish-owned Atlantic Concert after the ACL vessel arrived in Halifax from Liverpool, England.

"I think anyone who gets on a container ship in February and crosses the Atlantic has to be in a desperate situation," Chamagne said. The men are shaken by the crossing, she said, and by being locked up in the province's largest jail.

"Halifax doesn't have an immigration holding centre. These people are not incarcerated, they are detained on immigration grounds," she said. "But they are in the general population of a criminal facility here, and that's got to be a shock to anyone."

The shipping company has to pay $25,000 each time someone hides away on their ships to get into Canada. The Atlantic Concert left Halifax on Saturday for American ports of call.


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