April 7, 2011 / 3:52 PM / in 8 years

FEATURE-Tunisians snared in Franco-Italian tug of war

* Hundreds of Tunisians mass at the border with France

* Some pay drivers to smuggle them over the border

* “Europe has to take action”, Ventimiglia’s mayor says

By Antonella Ciancio

VENTIMIGLIA, Italy, April 7 (Reuters) - A few metres from the invisible line where Italy meets France, a shiny billboard welcomes travellers: “Ventimiglia, gateway to Italy where beauty has no borders.”

But hundreds of Tunisian migrants hoping to cross into France are more interested in an exit from the northern Italian town, where they have been blocked by a row between Paris and Rome that underscores tensions over migration into Europe.

Taxi drivers say migrants pay “porteurs” to smuggle them in their cars. Others prefer to risk their lives on “The Path of Death”, one of several mountain tracks once used by Italians to flee fascism during the Second World War.

The attraction of France, Tunisia’s former colonial ruler, is strong for many North African migrants, who hope to reach relatives already living there. Most speak French and see better prospects for finding work.

But for Karim, 29, a carpenter with a regular visa in Italy who is here to look after his younger brother, Europe is not the promised land of migrants’ dreams.

“They come here thinking they will find a paradise, but they just bang their head against a wall,” he said in fluent Italian at a former firemen’s barracks used as temporary shelter for migrants on the outskirts of Ventimiglia.

Italy is issuing temporary permits to those who want to travel to other European countries but France is refusing to accept them and French police have been turning back migrants who try to cross the border.

French Interior Minister Claude Gueant, vowing not to surrender to what he called “economic immigration”, said police had orders to toughen border controls and repel anyone without the necessary papers and money to survive in France.

The row between Rome and Paris over repatriation rules resonates in the three-floor prefab being used as a temporary migrant centre.

“What is going to happen to us?,” asks Boulbaba Bouzaieme, 29, as he picks at potatoes and fish in an enveloped plastic dish provided by the International Red Cross (ICRC).

A Tunisian scrawls a question mark on a piece of paper.

Many ask what Italy’s prime minister Silvio Berlusconi will tell French President Nicolas Sarkozy when they meet on April 26 in Rome on the thorny issue.

Italy signed an agreement with the Tunisian government on Tuesday to try to stem the flow and has pledged more than 200 million euros in aid and credit lines as well as more police cooperation and possible forced repatriation for clandestines.

EUROPE’S RESPONSIBILITY

Ventimiglia hosts only a small number of the 25,000 Tunisian migrants who have landed since January in Lampedusa, a tiny island roughly midway between Sicily and Tunisia.

But every night new arrivals come by train with regular tickets from Rome, fuelling concerns the emergency could worsen. Some of them have not eaten for four days, others have developed health problems, the ICRC says.

Those too tired to attempt crossing the border accept being taken to the temporary centre where they find medical help, food and a bed.

“The situation has improved a little bit, but we never know what may happen tonight,” says Massino Nisi, a regional commissioner for ICRC.

Italy has appealed to its European partners for help in dealing with the emergency, but has complained of a “total refusal to cooperate” by its neighbours.

In Ventimiglia, patience is running out.

Gaetano Scullino, the centre-right mayor, says he is in a lonely fight against an emergency on a scale not seen for years.

“We don’t weep over our sorrows, but Europe has to take its own share of responsibility,” he told Reuters.

editing by Paul Taylor

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