Special visas issued to north African immigrants entitle them to cross into France
By Venetia Rainey
The fragile policy of informal border controls within the European Union is in danger of collapse following Italy’s decision to give thousands of migrants from north Africa the right to leave the country and travel north into France, Austria and Germany.
There is now a very real prospect of border controls being resurrected for the first time since the Schengen Agreement was introduced in 1995, a deal which effectively removed the borders between EU states.
More than 25,000 people have arrived in Italy, mainly via the southern island of Lampedusa, over the last three months. Most are young men from Tunisia looking for work, though in recent weeks refugees from Libya have been coming too – at great risk to their lives, given the much longer sea journey.
Since the fall of former Tunisian president Ben Ali in mid-January, both the country's economy and its border controls have completely collapsed, giving thousands reason to escape Africa by sea.
This crisis has been a long time unfolding, and the Italians has been asking the EU for help ever since the north African influx began. They were given little response, save an opportunistic visit by the right-wing leader of France's National Front party, Marine le Pen. Visiting Lampedusa last month, she commented, without a trace of irony: "If I listened only to my heart, I would throw myself in the water to save them. But we would all drown because my boat is too fragile".
Her attitude has turned out to be the prevalent one. So, with the EU countries each insisting that "their boats are too fragile" to cope with the influx of migrants, Italy decided to take action on its own.
Last week, Italy declared that it would be granting six months 'humanitarian visas' to all Tunisians who arrived in the country before April 5. Following much wrangling with Tunisian officials, the Italian government extracted a promise that any who had arrived after that date could be returned home.
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