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Photo Gallery: The European Union's Immigration Divide

Foto: FRANCESCO MALAVOLTA/ AFP

'Is This Your Democracy?' Refugee Influx Exposes Limitations of European Solidarity

The influx of economic refugees from Tunisia has exposed deep rifts in the European Union. Italy wants help in dealing with the thousands of immigrants who have arrived since the beginning of the year, but the rest of the bloc refuses to provide it. It is just one more example of an EU struggling to stay united.

He is still wearing the red-and-yellow jersey of the football club "Espérance sportive de Tunis," the only remaining vestige of his past life. He wore it on the fishing boat that brought across the stormy seas to Lampedusa, hoping it would bring him luck.

The journey into his new life took Amir, 22, a very tall, alert Tunisian, five weeks to complete. During that time, he hid in buses and trains and traveled 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles) through Italy and half of France. Now he is sitting under a flowering clematis vine in a garden on the Loire River, near the Atlantic coast, breathlessly telling the story of his odyssey.

He made it to France because he was faster and more courageous than most of his fellow Tunisians, who had fled across the sea since the beginning of the year to find a new future in Europe.

Amir is one of the Tunisians who helped make the revolution in his country possible. He is educated and speaks polished French. He organized sit-down strikes in his university department, and he was among those who protested in the streets of Tunis and sent the country's then president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, into exile.

Frustration, more than anything else, was the fuel which drove the revolution. Most Tunisians are younger than 30 and there are far from enough jobs to go around; the future looked bleak. But the post-revolution economy is, if anything, in much worse shape than it was prior to Ben Ali's departure -- and Amir's university is still not open, months after the revolution. It was, Amir decided, time to leave.

Extremely Fragile

He scraped together €900 ($1,305) to pay for his trans-Mediterranean passage and, together with 35 other young men, boarded a fishing boat in the port city of Sfax. After 15 hours, they arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa, the small, rocky European outpost in the middle of the sea.

They were not alone. Some 26,000 refugees have been stranded on the tiny Italian island since January, most of them Tunisians. But while they are looking for a better life, their arrival has set off a bitter dispute -- one proving that Europe, their paradise, is at times an extremely fragile community.

The dispute has to do with who should be obligated to accept the refugees on a temporary basis. The Italians, on whose territory they landed in the first place, as provided for in European treaties? Or is the number of refugees too large for Italy to handle? This is the position of the government in Rome, which wants to declare the refugee crisis a state of emergency, a position other EU members do not support.

When Italy announced that it would issue the refugees temporary residence permits with which they could travel to other EU countries, its neighbors threatened to reintroduce border controls. This would spell the temporary end of a borderless Europe.

Italian Interior Minister Robert Maroni upped the ante when he said last week: "I wonder if it even makes sense to stay in the EU." Given that Maroni is a member of the nationalist Northern League, his words weren't exactly surprising. But Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's argument was. He said that either Europe ought to be something real and concrete, but that if it wasn't, perhaps it would be better for each country to return to using its own methods for dealing with the refugees.

More Unpopular than Ever

The dispute over what to do with the Tunisian refugees on its southern flank is far from the only conflict battering the European Union. Indeed, the 27-member bloc has rarely been as divided as it is today, despite hopes that the Lisbon Treaty would bring EU countries closer together. Common interests are fading while the self-interest of individual countries is on the rise once again. The supposedly unified continent, which benefited from the great upheavals of 1989, has never been as unpopular with its citizens as it is today.

The disturbing development has been in evidence since the financial crisis. For the EU, the question of how to rescue the euro has expanded into an ongoing dispute over a European economic policy. That alone has created a deep divide within Europe, particularly between the affluent north and the less affluent south.

Then came the quarrel over the NATO intervention in Libya, when France pressed for military force against Moammar Gadhafi while Germany joined China and Russia in abstaining from the United Nations Security Council vote -- and in doing so demonstratively veered away from the Western alliance.

And now comes the third dispute, this time over refugees. Objectively speaking, relatively little is at stake; the number of stranded North Africans is still fairly small. But of all the European disputes, this one could prove the most difficult to resolve.

Immigration is an issue that motivates voters in all EU countries, as evidenced by the rise of right-wing populist parties in France, the Netherlands, Sweden and now Finland . But skepticism of a flux of newcomers from North Africa is everywhere -- and national interests have clearly trumped collective solidarity.

Isolation and Fury

Italy claims the current refugee crisis is an emergency, which would necessitate suspending the principle established under the so-called Dublin II Regulation, namely that a refugee can only apply for asylum in the country in which he arrives. Germany and France counter that they have already received far more asylum requests per year, namely about 40,000 each, while Italian authorities only process about 6,000 applications a year.

One reason Italian politicians are so furious is that they feel isolated. At a meeting of the EU interior ministers in Luxembourg last Monday, only the island nation of Malta supported the Italians. France, in particular, is nervous about immigration from primarily francophone North African countries.

Austrian Interior Minister Maria Fekter pointed out that Italy is a big country "and could certainly show a little good will." German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich likewise stood his ground, saying "Italy has to live up to its responsibility." He added that Rome's plan to issue travel visas violated "the spirit of Schengen."

The German minister announced Berlin's plan to increase scrutiny, particularly in southern Germany. Germany's federal police is even looking into how quickly it would be able to reintroduce regular border controls, even though only about 300 North Africans entered Germany in the first quarter of this year. The Italian interior minister, noting his isolation, said obstinately that he would rather be alone than "in bad company."

A Fortress of Xenophobia

The woman who is expected to protect Europe from the North African refugees is sitting in her large office on the ninth floor of the European Commission headquarters building in Brussels. Cecilia Malmström is 42, a Swede and a liberal, and yet she has made a name for herself so far as favoring law-and-order. She is the EU commissioner for home affairs.

The drastic choice of words by the EU interior ministers on the Tunisian refugees goes decidedly too far for Malmström. She can only shake her head when she hears the situation being described as a "mass exodus," "a wave of refugees" and a "tsunami." "Talking about six or seven-figure numbers of refugees is completely exaggerated," says Malmström.

She fears that such rhetoric will only help parties like the National Front in France and the movement headed by Dutch politician Geert Wilders. "The influx of refugees is very, very limited," she says. "The debate is very overheated."

There are some indications that she is right. While almost half a million people have left Libya since the beginning of the war there, most of them have not headed to Europe. Rather, they have found refuge in neighboring African countries such as Egypt, Algeria, Morocco and Niger. Many refugees have already been repatriated into their home countries. Tens of thousands, however, are still stranded in refugee camps in eastern Tunisia.

But the refugees stranded on Lampedusa are almost exclusively Tunisians -- economic refugees looking for a better life. The flight across the Mediterranean has become much easier now that Ben Ali's police state has collapsed. Indeed, the country hardly even has a functioning coast guard.

'Haven't Broken Any Laws'

The European debate is focused on the economic refugees. Although 26,000 people are too much for Lampedusa, says EU Commissioner Malmström, they are not too much for Europe. The Tunisians are only willing to take back 60 refugees per day, while Brussels is trying to convince them to make bigger concessions. "But they have larger problems there," says Malmström. "So what should Italy do? It can't put these people in prison, because they haven't broken any laws."

Malmström believes that there are no legal grounds to object to Italy handing out Schengen visas to the refugees. "It is very, very easy to criticize Italy," she says. "But no country has proposed any other solution." In her view, the best approach would be to distribute the refugees among other EU countries. "Most are very well-educated. It would be easy for the other countries to take them as, for example, hotel receptionists."

The commissioner wants to use the current crisis to reform asylum law. She argues that it is unfair for the same refugee to have no chance of being recognized as an asylum seeker in Greece and a 75-percent chance in Sweden. "This is completely unacceptable. We need the same standards."

Malmström -- like the Italians -- also wants to amend the Dublin II Regulation, which stipulates that each country must accept the refugees that arrive on its shores. She believes that if a country is unable to handle large numbers of refugees, this principle must be temporarily suspended.

Malmström is unlikely to find much support for her views in France, the country where most of the Tunisians are headed. But, says Malmström, it isn't just about demonstrating solidarity with Italy but, more importantly, with Tunisia. "We are experiencing an extraordinary wave of democratization, a trend the Tunisians started. They deserve our solidarity," she says.

Overwhelmed

For Amir, the Tunisian who made his way to Italy and then France, there was no evidence of solidarity upon his arrival. The refugee camp on Lampedusa was overcrowded, the garbage was piling up, the toilets were clogged and the aid workers were aggressive. "It was pure harassment," says Amir. "Italy was trying to the world that it's overwhelmed and needs help and money from the EU."

But when it came to protesting the conditions, Amir and the other refugees had experience. They set mattresses on fire in the camp and shouted: "Liberté!" He was flown to the southern Italian region of Calabria on the mainland and placed in a new facility, one that was guarded by Italian police officers. Again, Amir became impatient, stayed for only one night, left his backpack and clothing on his cot so that no one would notice that he was gone, and climbed a three-meter barbed-wire fence to escape the camp.

He wandered through Italy for two weeks, traveling alone and doing his best not to look conspicuous. He shaved twice a day, took five trains and three buses, hid behind Italian newspapers and said nothing. He traveled to France through the Aosta Valley, in a bus full of ski tourists. An Italian man bought him the tickets, using the money his brother had sent to him from France through Western Union.

Now he is living with his brother in Nantes, but he is disappointed by Europe. "First you applaud our revolution," he says, "and then you chase us halfway across the continent. Is this supposed to be your democracy?" For Amir, Europe is a fortress, egoistic and xenophobic.

But at least he has already made it to Europe. Many of his fellow Tunisians are still stuck in Italy, no longer on Lampedusa but in Ventimiglia  in the north, a city of 25,000 on the French border.

A Ping-Pong Game

Hundreds of Tunisian refugees are now loitering in the city's manicured parks and palm-tree lined esplanades, near yacht harbors and luxury boutiques. Like Amir, these refugees fled from the camps in the south and are on their way to France, where their relatives live and where they speak the language. But now that the French are no longer letting them in, the Italian visas are their last chance.

The scene here on the French-Italian border is of a continent that has battened down the hatches. An Italian police van is waiting on the Italian side, in front of the train station in Ventimiglia, where officers search the trains and drag out anyone who is coming from France and has no identification papers. The offenders are immediately carted back across the border.

The same scene is unfolding less than 10 kilometers away, where a French police van waits in front of the train station in Menton on the Côte d'Azur. French officers escort Tunisian refugees back to Italy, where they drop them off at the border police station in Ventimiglia, next to the town hall. Inside, Ventimiglia's mayor, Gaetano Scullino, sighs and says that what they are doing here amounts to a ping-pong game.

The Red Cross has set up a reception camp in a fire station, where refugees are offered cots, showers and a hot meal. The camp, intended to hold only 150 people, is hopelessly overcrowded. There is growing resistance against the refugees in the town, where residents say violence is on the rise.

Several times a day, Mayor Scullino visits the train station and speaks with the refugees. He tells them that Europe is no longer a great dream of luxury, jobs and unlimited freedom. He tries to explain to them why this Europe is so afraid of them. "We have 30 percent youth unemployment," he says. "Go back to your country."

But they don't listen, and they don't give in. And their numbers increase every day.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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