France will send migrants without funds back to Italy


TUNISIAN MIGRANTS arriving in France from Italy will be sent back across the border unless they can prove they have adequate funds to support themselves, French interior minister Claude Guéant has said.

Relations between France and Italy, already strained by divisions over the intervention in Libya, were further damaged on Sunday when French authorities closed the border near the southeastern town of Menton to block a train carrying a group of about 60 Tunisians from crossing.

The French government says it temporarily closed the border linking Ventimiglia and Menton on public order grounds, as the migrants and their supporters planned to hold an unauthorised demonstration. Italy formally objected to France’s action, and foreign minister Franco Frattini yesterday accused Paris of breaching the Schengen convention on freedom of movement.

“If the situation persists, we would save time by just saying that we are changing our minds about free circulation, which is one of the fundamental principles of the union,” he said. “But we are sure that France will explain.”

Paris was angered by Rome’s decision to issue temporary residence permits to about 20,000 migrants who have arrived in Italy by sea after fleeing unrest in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya in the past two months.

The Italian government says that under Schengen, the permit-holders can travel freely between Italy and France, but Paris insists it has the right to grant entry only to those with a place to stay and evidence of adequate financial resources.

The dispute is set against a fraught political background in France, where the rise of the far-right Front National at the expense of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP has made immigration a major battleground.

Mr Guéant yesterday defended France’s action, insisting his government respected EU rules on visa-free travel but that it was entitled to grant entry only to those with sufficient means to support themselves. “We applied the letter and the spirit of the Schengen agreement,” he said.

Asked about the decision to stop the trains, Cecilia Malmström, the EU home affairs commissioner, said the French “apparently have the right to do this”. Italy has complained it has not received enough support from European neighbours in coping with the arrival of immigrants from north Africa, many of whom have made for the island of Lampedusa.

France’s closure of the border came just days after Mr Guéant became the first French minister to call for a reduction in legal immigration. In a shift in policy, Mr Guéant said that as well as increasing the expulsion rate for undocumented migrants, he wanted to cut the number of work visas issued each year by 20,000.

“We must listen more to the French people and bring forward precise solutions to address what they expect of us,” he said.