Migrant spat puts strain on EU open borders

Thousands of North African migrants in Italian refugee centres remain in legal limbo as a diplomatic row escalates between the French and Italian governments over the key principle of free movement within the European Union.

The fate of thousands of stranded Tunisian migrants bearing temporary residence permits remained unclear on Tuesday as activists vowed to challenge the French authorities’ refusal to let them cross the border from Italy. Their campaign came amid an increasingly bitter diplomatic spat that deepened when France temporarily suspended a rail link to prevent a train carrying Tunisians and pro-migrant protesters from entering French territory.

Several migration experts contacted by France24.com said that the Italian-delivered permits would not be sufficient to reach France, where many Tunisian migrants have family or friends. But they warned that the move’s legality was “confusing”, forcing Paris to tread a fine line between intensifying border checks and respecting the European principle of free movement enshrined in the Schengen treaty.

Ethnic profiling

As French police continue to monitor trains, roads and foot trails coming from the Italian Riviera town of Ventimiglia, their border controls will come under increased scrutiny from pro-migrant activists checking whether they comply with European and French laws against ethnic profiling.

Brigitte Espuche, a legal expert from the French rights group Anafé, told France24.com that overt targeting of North African migrants could spark a discrimination lawsuit and jeopardise the French policy of restricting cross-border movements.

“Police forces are aware that it would be completely illegal. When reports emerged on February 21 that an internal note calling for the control of Tunisian nationals was put up in the Cannes police station, it was pulled down the next day”, says Brigitte Espuche.

Sufficient funds

Migration experts are also questioning whether French plans to control all migrants with permits in order to deport those who can’t produce evidence of “sufficient funds” is actually enforceable once migrants are already in the Schengen zone. Monitoring of migrants’ financial means is legal under European law, but it is usually performed outside the borders of the Schengen zone.

“We have received first-hand reports from people who boarded trains in Ventimiglia; they told us that police randomly ask to see some passengers’ money. Sometimes a migrant will show 50 euros and it will be fine, but sometimes it won’t. It’s the sort of rule that is impossible to enforce”, said Claire Rodier, the vice-president of Migreurop, an umbrella organisation for pro-migrant advocacy groups.

An internal administrative note from French Interior Minister Claude Gueant put the amount of sufficient funds at 62 euros per day (31 if hosted for free) but remains silent over how police can assess the migrant’s prospective length of stay. In other words, a Tunisian migrant equipped with an Italian residency permit could legally cross into France with 124 euros in his pocket if he claims that he doesn’t intend to stay more than two days.

Slap in the face

The current border crisis has been brewing since Italy decided to grant six-month residency permits to more than 20,000 migrants, mostly Tunisians, who fled political and economic upheaval back home by boarding boats to the tiny southern Italian island of Lampedusa. French authorities reacted by reinforcing police patrols along their south-eastern border, angrily rejecting Rome’s claim that such permits allow migrants to travel freely around Europe.

Tensions came to a head on April 17 when France blocked cross-border trains coming from Ventimiglia for several hours, leaving hundreds of travellers stranded. The drastic decision sparked a public outcry in Italy, with La Repubblica newspaper calling it a “slap in the face” for Rome.

Legal challenge

Few Italian commentators bought the French explanation that the train shutdown was motivated by reasons of “public order” – the ultimate legal argument to temporarily suspend the Schengen treaty. Instead, migration jurists insist that Paris’s hardening stance is the result of a political strategy rather than a legal decision.

Claire Rodier told France24.com that her organisation was currently compiling individual testimonies from both Tunisian migrants with permits and EU citizens affected by the April 17 train blockade to challenge French policy.

“We are going to file a complaint to French administrative courts within one month… We will appeal against the authorities’ denial of access to France’s territory and take the case up to the European court of justice if necessary”.

By Mehdi Chebil


France 24, English broadcast, 19/04