February 24, 2011 / 8:16 PM / 9 years ago

Italy call for EU help with refugees rebuffed

* Italy alarmed by threat of refugees from north Africa

* EU governments say Italian calls for help exaggerated

By Justyna Pawlak

BRUSSELS, Feb 24 (Reuters) - Italy faced criticism in the European Union on Thursday for raising alarm over a potential wave of refugees from Libya, with several governments saying Rome’s calls for help in dealing with migrants were exaggerated.

Western governments are weighing contingency plans if escalating violence in Libya triggers massive outflows of people. But international experts say out of at least 30,000, mainly Tunisians and Egyptians, who have fled turmoil so far, none were headed for Europe.

Rome has warned hundreds of thousands could flee to Italy, an important European port of entry for many migrants from north Africa, and asked its European partners for funds and help in housing them.

But many EU governments, mainly from northern Europe, said during a meeting in Brussels it was too early to predict how many people could seek shelter from turmoil in north Africa in Europe, and rebuffed Italy’s requests.

“We shouldn’t paint the devil on the wall until he appears,” Hungary’s interior minister, Sandor Pinter, told reporters after the meeting. Hungary holds the EU’s presidency until the end of June and oversees many policy debates.

Austrian Interior Minister Maria Fekter said Vienna was ready to help if turmoil led to a humanitarian disaster, but this was not the case yet.

“We are against reallocating asylum seekers from Italy to the rest of Europe,” she said before meeting.

The rift underscores divisions in Europe on how to tackle immigration and share responsibility for housing refugees, asylum seekers and irregular immigrants to the bloc.

Under EU rules, asylum seekers can only apply for assistance in the country in which they first entered the EU. In case of a humanitarian disaster outside EU borders, the bloc’s governments are not obliged to take in refugees who arrive in another state.

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said Berlin had done a share of caring for massive flows of refugees when it sheltered thousands that fled Balkan wars in the 1990s.

He said Italy was “challenged but not overstretched” by more than 5,000 people that have arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa in recent weeks, fleeing unrest in Tunisia.

“We have lived up to our humanitarian responsibility,” he said. “We shouldn’t be painting horror figuresand encouraging refugees to come to Europe.”

The EU’s border agency sent teams of officials in recent days to Italy to deal with migrants from Tunisia. But Italy wants a promise that more help would be available.

Its worry is that many of the hundreds of thousands of migrants from Asia and other parts of Africa now living in Libya could seek shelter in Italy.

“We ask for solidarity of other member states ... We cannot be left alone,” Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said. (Additional reporting by Francesco Guarascio; Reporting by Justyna Pawlak; Editing by Alison Williams)

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