Tunisian Refugees Prove to be a Problem for E.U. Policy

Some 25,000 Tunisian migrants arrived on European coasts this past month. But instead of welcoming them, France and Italy are fighting for a way to get rid of them.

This fight on where to place refugees, though, has led to a more broad policy question in the European Union. As the two countries reject the refugees, they do so in violation of one of the founding principles of the European Union: free and unhindered travel.

At this juncture, there is no consensus in Europe on how to deal with the flood of refugees escaping the revolutions in the Middle East. European allies do not agree on how to deal with the Arab revolutions’ consequences. Fleeing the chaos at home, many young Tunisians are looking for a better life abroad, specifically in France. For a little more than a 1,000 Euros they embark on boats from the Tunisian town of Zarzis and arrive on the Italian island of Lampedusa, near Siciliy. Once there, they try to reach Paris by any possible route.

Of course, this wave of immigration remains problematic for the small island of Lampedusa. With only 6,000 inhabitants, Lampedusa does not have the capacity to host so many migrants. As such, the Italian government decided to give these refugees a temporary resident permit, a kind of visa that makes them free to go anywhere within Europe under the Schengen law.

Schengen, a founding treaty of Europe, is an agreement which ultimately creates the fluid process now in effect for a traveler to move freely inside the European Union. It abolished borders in Europe and allows any citizen who walks in a country belonging to the Schengen area to go to another country without being controlled at the border. Italy’s decision to grant temporary visas to Tunisian refugees was not accepted by France. Acting against the European law, they prevented migrants from coming to France. At one point the French government even arrested more than 100 migrants in Paris.

After several days of argument between France and Italy, both countries reunited during a summit last week. On April 26, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his Italian counterpart, Silvio Berlusconi, both decided to send a letter to the European Commission asking to reinforce the Frontex agency – the European border police – but also seeking to reform the Schengen agreement or to suspend it.

This joint decision between the countries has raised legal questions. French efforts to suspend the treaty can only succeed if there is a “serious threat for the maintenance of law and order or national security." Recent efforts, then, in effect seek to end a founding pillar of the European Union.

We must wonder if 25,000 migrants are a threat for France national security? France usually welcomes over 100,000 migrants a year. The biggest minority group in France are immigrants from North Africa. Compared to these numbers, can 25,000 Tunisians really be considered an invasion of national security (as the nationalist party has suggested)?

As such, efforts to deal with Tunisian refugees have turned from humanitarian aid to firm police control. Further, it is believed José Manuel Barrosso, the president of the European Commission, will accept Italian and French proposals on immigration.

France and Italy are not the only countries to blame: while France has turned its back on migrants, Germany and Spain have not acted to fill the gap.

In the meantime, more than 200,000 Libyans took refuge in Tunisia. They live in refugee camps where the living conditions are far better than in Italy or France; sometimes they are even hosted in Tunisians families.

Europe could take a lesson in humanity from the the same people they are trying to expel.

Photo CreditWikimedia Commons