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France blocks Italian train carrying Tunisian migrants

The train is stopped at a border town. French officials say they feared a disruptive protest and that Italian authorities should handle the migrants.

April 19, 2011|By Devorah Lauter, Los Angeles Times
  • Tunisian migrants at Vintimiglia train station in Italy wait to cross the French border.
Tunisian migrants at Vintimiglia train station in Italy wait to cross the… (Stephane Drapot, Getty…)

Reporting from Paris — French authorities barred an Italian train loaded with Tunisian migrants and European activists from entering its territory, angering Italian officials who on Monday formally protested what they saw as un-European behavior.

"I realize that every country has its own domestic policy concerns, but the EU requires open borders, and if we start to put up walls the union will go nowhere," Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said.

The so-called train of dignity left Genoa on Sunday, headed for Marseilles with 60 Tunisian migrants holding recent Italian-issued travel permits, along with about 150 mostly Italian and French activists. But the group never made it to its destination.

French authorities ordered the train stopped at the Italian border town of Ventimiglia for fear of an unauthorized protest that might disturb the peace, according to the French Interior Ministry. All trains departing the station toward France were temporarily canceled.

Italy has borne the brunt of the more than 20,000 Tunisian and other migrants arriving in Europe since January after waves of rebellion in North Africa.

The spat highlighted simmering tensions over the issue between the two countries and tested European policy over the unexpected onslaught of migrants whose native countries are in upheaval.

Limited employment opportunities have contributed to rising anti-immigrant sentiment across Europe, strengthening the popularity of extreme-right groups and making it all the more difficult for Western European countries to sell the idea of sheltering refugees.

"European countries want to play the game at a national level, not as Europeans, and it shows what kind of a crisis European migratory policy is in," said Christophe Bertossi, a researcher for the French Institute of International Relations and an expert on migrants.

"France and Italy are not on the same team.... There's European talk of solidarity, but there's no European reality," he said.

In an interview published Monday in the Italian daily La Repubblica, Frattini said the French concerns about a disturbance did not fully warrant the action. "Frankly, that's not enough to justify the closure of one of the most traveled and sensitive trans-European routes; this closure is shocking," he said.

But French Interior Minister Claude Gueant told journalists that the government had applied European Union law "to the letter," citing a rule that "says the first countries to receive [migrants] handle those migrant populations."

Yet French activist Teresa Maffeis, 60, who joined the convoy in Ventimiglia, didn't believe the French were ever concerned about safety.

"We were not disturbing the peace," she said. "We were sitting calmly and singing.... The French government just stopped the train because they knew barring immigrants from coming in is popular here.

"But it won't make any difference," she said, noting that the migrants "will just take the train into France in the next few days because they have every right to."

On April 5, Italy issued six-month travel permits to thousands of recent Tunisian migrants, a move that France criticized as irresponsible. The permits allow migrants to travel elsewhere in Europe without meeting usual immigrant requirements. In what appeared to be a compromise, France said it would accept migrants with Italian permits as long as they could prove they had the financial resources to travel in France and would not seek employment.

Lauter is a special correspondent.

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