LUXEMBOURG – Germany and France offered little help to Italy on Monday when it asked for assistance in handling what it called a "human tsunami" of thousands of Tunisians fleeing their country for Europe via Italy.
Instead, France announced that it would reinforce controls close to the Italian border with extra riot police to send back all Tunisian migrants who do not have the proper papers and enough cash on them.
"We will use all legal means at our disposal," French Interior Minister Claude Gueant said. France, Tunisia's former colonial ruler, is the primary attraction for many of the illegal migrants.
Germany said Italy was seeking to undermine the visa-free travel of the Schengen zone through much of Europe by giving the thousands of migrants temporary passes to travel outside of Italy. Germany said it also will reinforce controls in the border zone to keep the migrants out.
"We cannot accept that a lot of employment migrants enter Europe through Italy," German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said.
Italy's foreign minister, Franco Frattini, said Europe's international standing would suffer if it fails to deal together with some 26,000 Tunisians crossing the Mediterranean Sea in the wake of political unrest at home.
Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said there was little point in seeking EU cooperation after Monday's meeting of EU interior ministers. "If this is the answer, it is better to be alone than in bad company," said Maroni. "I wonder if it makes sense to stay in the European Union," Maroni said.
Some 20,000 illegal migrants have reached Italy by the boatload through the small Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, which is close to Tunisia. Fifty more arrived Sunday, and police spotted two more boats en route carrying some 300 people. The exodus began after Tunisia's longtime dictator was overthrown in mid-January.
On Monday, a fire broke out in two buildings at an immigrant shelter in Lampedusa, Italy's ANSA news agency said, and SKY Italia reported that Tunisians protesting repatriations had set the building ablaze. About 50 migrants managed to escape from the center, while others were stopped by police patrolling the area, according to ANSA.
The fire was put out and it caused no injuries, the reports said.
Italy, and to a lesser extent Malta, has taken in the thousands of migrants from Tunisia but now wants the EU to help share the burden.
"Thousands, tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands" of migrants could come from Tunisia, Frattini said. "This is not an Italian-French affair or French-Italian affair. It's a purely European affair."
Not so, Germany insisted, showing a widening rift in the EU over the sensitive issue of migrants.
The EU ministers did agree on beefing up external border controls in the Mediterranean to keep the migrants away. On Friday, France and Italy agreed to joint sea-and-air patrols to tighten controls, and Gueant said the system would be expanded to include the other EU nations.
The ministers also agreed to pressure Tunisia to make sure the flow of rickety boats overloaded with people looking for a better future would stop.
EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso will visit Tunis on Tuesday, and Gueant said he would make clear that help is a two-way street.
"The EU plans aid, like loans and financial help, to allow Tunisia to develop after the political revolution. In this context we talk about everything, including our wish that Tunisia keeps its citizens at home and fights human trafficking networks," he said.