PARIS (Reuters) - With a hundred Africans sleeping on rocks overlooking the Italian coast after being turned back at the French border, Rome and Paris argued on Monday over who should handle the waves of migrants landing on Italy’s shores.
Italy has long argued that it and Greece cannot be expected to cope alone with the influx, just because they are the closest landing points for political and economic migrants from all over Africa and the Middle East streaming towards the European Union in rickety boats.
Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano told reporters in Milan that scenes in Ventimiglia, where a Reuters photographer saw about 100 mostly African migrants asleep just 30 minutes from the French Riviera, were “a punch in the face to all the European countries that want to close their eyes”.
But French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said France would continue to turn back the migrants, and that Italy must follow the EU’s Dublin regulations, which assign most asylum seekers to the first EU country they enter until their application has been processed.
“They do not have the right to pass (into France) and must be handled by Italy,” he told BFM TV.
Cazeneuve said about 15,000 migrants had been turned back at France’s borders in 2014 and that he had ordered even tougher controls this year.
“This needs to be done to ensure a welcome for those who are (political) refugees,” he said.
Many EU governments are under growing pressure from anti-immigration parties such as France’s Front National or Britain’s UK Independence Party.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, whose party lost ground to the anti-immigration Northern League in regional elections last month, called for a change to the regulations.
He argued that, after toppling Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, the international community bore responsibility for the wave of migrants who have crossed to southern Italy - some 170,000 in 2014 alone.
And, after hearing of Cazeneuve’s comments, he added: “If Europe wants to be Europe, it has to take on this problem as a single bloc. This is Plan A. The muscular stance of some ministers of some friendly countries goes in the opposite direction.
“If it’s Italy’s problem because Europe closes its eyes, then Italy will do it on its own. But in that case it would be a defeat not for Italy, but for the very idea of Europe.”
Renzi will discuss the issue with French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron when they visit Italy this week.
Reporting By John Irish in Paris, Steve Scherer in Rome and Eric Gaillard in Ventimiglia; Editing by Andrew Callus and Kevin Liffey