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Monday, 14 March 2011


Thousands of Tunisians landing on a rocky Italian outcrop have put Europe on edge about the fallout of North Africa's revolts -- and a visit by a French far-right leader is set to raise tensions. After a revolution in Tunisia in January sparked uprisings across the region, around 8,000 undocumented immigrants have made the perilous journey to the island of Lampedusa -- more than the total for the whole of 2010. While the island's fishing communities have been patient with the wave of weary migrants arriving on rickety boats, Lampedusa's 850-bed immigrant centre is heavily overcrowded and local authorities say the island has been overrun. And there are fears now that the strife in Libya will open the floodgates and bring hundreds of thousands more migrants -- a concern that Europe's leading anti-immigration advocates have been quick to seize on. Given by recent polls as a favourite in France's presidential election next year, France's National Front leader Marine Le Pen is set to visit Lampedusa on Monday with Mario Borghezio -- a lawmaker from Italy's Northern League party. As she prepared for her trip to the 20-square-kilometre island that has a population of just 6,000 people, Le Pen said she wanted to see the front lines of the immigration crisis to "get an idea of what's going on." "I have no intention of being provocative," Le Pen said in an interview with Italian news agency ANSA.

Local lawmakers from the centre-left opposition Democratic Party are not convinced. "It's a real provocation for all Lampedusans who believe firmly in Christian values, hospitality and human solidarity," they said. Migrants usually only stay a few days on Lampedusa and are then put on ships or planes to immigrant detention centres across Italy. An agreement with Tunisia on returning those not granted asylum has fallen through since the revolution, meaning thousands are stranded. Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, also from the Northern League, has warned that some of the 1.5 million people trying to flee Libya could be headed for Italy's shores -- and Italy can't cope on its own, he says. "Europe is being invaded," Maroni has said in one of many dramatic comments. But Maroni too, said Le Pen's trip should not "throw fuel on the fire" of a delicate situation on the gorund in Lampedusa. "We will ensure it is not used as propaganda for French domestic politics," he said.

There are major divisions in Europe on how much burden-sharing there should be on immigration, with many northern European states sceptical. "Europe's job is not to rescue North Africans from their own governments... and bring them to Europe," Andrew Brons, an MEP from the far-right British National Party told the European Parliament last month. When in late February Italy called for more EU help to handle the problem, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said: "There's no refugee influx right now. Let's not provoke one by talking about it." Germany and the Nordic countries have refused funding for a budget for the EU border management agency Frontex big enough to buy boats, helicopters and planes to help North African country's control their shores. In an interview Wednesday with French daily Le Midi Libre, Le Pen called for a three-way agreement with Spain and Italy to take a ruthless approach to incoming boats and use military vessels to tow them straight back. The measure, she said, would help save lives: "If we should welcome even just one of these boats without taking it back to the country it came from, we would be sending out a terrible signal to 'try the adventure'." But Jean-Pierre Cassarino, a professor at the European University Institute, said simply turning the boats back or expelling migrants from Europe were not solutions that addressed the social and economic reasons for migration. "They are short-sighted policies that are aimed at responding to emergency situations. They are responding to consequences, not causes. The approach has be reviewed," Cassarino told AFP.