Refugee crisis hits Europe

Stephen Beard Apr 25, 2011

Refugee crisis hits Europe

Stephen Beard Apr 25, 2011

Kai Ryssdal: Italy and France will meet tomorrow to talk about the Middle East. Nothing to do with NATO or Libya or the no-fly zones. They’re trying to figure out what to do with the Tunisians who’ve left their country since the government collapsed back in January. The French and Italians haven’t exactly seen eye-to-eye on who’s responsible for nearly 25,000 Tunisian refugees.

So continuing our coverage of human economic costs of those protests, Marketplace’s Stephen Beard reports from the town of Oria in the Italian boot heel, where some of those Tunisians are being housed.

Stephen Beard: A dozen young Tunisians let off steam with a game of soccer in Oria’s main square. They arrived here a month ago — by a perilous route.

Mohammed Munedi crossed the Mediterranean in a leaky, overloaded fishing boat.

Mohammed Munedi: Nearly, nearly we die. Nearly. Seven hours in the bad weather. In really bad weather.

Beard: The boat nearly sank?

Munedi: Yeah, yeah, nearly sank. And let’s say the luck and god protect us and save us.

Thirteen-hundred of the migrants have been housed in a temporary camp outside Oria. Many — like Bilel — are complaining.

Bilel: Macarena, Macarena, Macarena, C’est tout le macarena.

Macaroni, macaroni, macaroni. All we get is macaroni, he says. There are no cigarettes, no coffee. It’s a prison, prison, prison.

The migrants are free to walk in and out of the camp. But they’re not permitted to leave the vicinity. They want to settle in Europe. There are lawyers, laborers, and engineers. Doctors, farmhands, waiters and some with a more dubious employment record.

Beard: You were working as a smuggler?

Munedi: Yeah, as a smuggler. But now after all this protest, everything get stopped, maybe, or get risky, let’s say.

Twenty-two-year-old Mohammed Munedi used to smuggle gasoline from Libya to Tunisia. He now wants to turn his hand to a different trade in France.

Munedi: I not coming here to work as a smuggler, but I got a cousin in France. I could work as a baker in France ’cause I have my cousin there.

The migrants have triggered a furious fight here in Italy. Many of the migrants say they want to go to France where they have family. But the French government has so far refused them entry. And the rest of the European Union has also rejected Italy’s pleas to take some of the migrants. Italy’s Interior Minister Roberto Maroni is outraged.

Roberto Maroni: I don’t know why we bother to belong to the European Union. The Union reacts quickly to bail out the banks and to declare war. But when we’re in difficulty and need help, the EU disappears.

The Italians have begun issuing temporary visas to the migrants. They believe that within passport-free Europe this should allow the Tunisians to slip into France. But the French say these are illegal immigrants. They’ve imposed border controls. Tensions are rising.

And especially back here in Oria. Police turn up to deal with a drunken brawl between two young Tunisians. Local journalist Mauritzio Distante says the migrants are at boiling point. He blames the European Union for applauding the Arab unrest and then turning its back on the consequences.

Mauritzio Distante: Because everyone was happy in Europe when Ben Ali fell, when Mubarak fell, but on the point of view of consequent immigration, they don’t want to pick up the pieces of these people.

Around 25,000 migrants — mostly from Tunisia — have arrived on Italian soil so far this year. The Italians worry that the Libyan conflict could soon unleash a much bigger exodus. And that Italy may have to cope with the onslaught, alone.

In Oria, southern Italy, I’m Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

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