France and Italy clash as migrant stand-off opens EU rift

Rome (AFP) - Italy and France engaged in a war of words Monday as a standoff over hundreds of Africans offered a graphic illustration of Europe's migration crisis.

Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano described images of migrants perched on rocks at the border town of Ventimiglia after being refused entry to France as a "punch in the face for Europe."

His French counterpart Bernard Cazeneuve hit back by insisting that France was fully within its rights to send illegal immigrants or asylum seekers back to Italy.

That prompted Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to weigh into the escalating row. "Europeans have a duty to address the problem of migrants together," he said. "That is the plan A for us. The muscular approach of certain ministers of foreign countries is going in the opposite direction."

The exchanges set the scene for further clashes when European Union ministers meet Tuesday in Luxembourg for talks on the crisis.

Around 250 migrants -- most of them English-speaking Africans -- have been camped in Ventimiglia for four days, protesting that they should be allowed to enter France on their way to their desired destinations in northern Europe.

"We will stay here tomorrow, the day after and even several months if it is necessary," said one of the Africans, 20-year-old Brahim from Darfur in Sudan.

Among a group of around 100 camping at the town train's station was Walid, a Sudanese who fled from Libya with his wife Sara and three young children.

As he talked to AFP, three-year-old Basmala played with a toy car given to her by an Italian passer-by while her two older brothers concentrated on a crossword.

The family attempted to cross the border three days earlier but were intercepted at the first stop in France, the Riviera resort of Menton, and taken back to the border, from where they walked for four hours to get back to Ventimiglia.

Walid decided to leave Libya after 25 years because of the chaos engulfing a country where he had his own electrical goods shop.

"It had become too difficult to live in Libya and to be black," he said, pointing out the scar on his nine-year-old son's cheek, the result of an incident at school.

Walid sold everything he had to pay 1,000 euros ($1,130) per person for the boat trip to Italy: an investment he hoped would allow him to get to Germany and ensure an education for his children.

France's Cazeneuve said Italy was obliged to deal with people like Walid and his family, citing the Dublin accords under which new arrivals in the European Union are supposed to be processed by the country in which they first land.

"The Dublin rules must be respected," the French minister said. "When migrants arrive in France that have been through Italy and registered there, European law applies and that means they must be returned to Italy," he told BFMTV.

- Mounting anger -

Cazeneuve confirmed that French authorities had been turning back a growing number of migrants this year in a bid to prevent people with no claim to asylum entering the country, saying it was necessary to ensure legitimate refugees could be accommodated.

But he denied that Paris had effectively closed its border in breach of the spirit of the Schengen accords which provide for passport-free travel around much of continental Europe.

Italy says the Dublin rules on processing migrants are no longer appropriate given the scale of the problem. More than 220,000 people have landed at its southern ports since the start of 2014 and there is mounting anger over what Rome sees as its EU partners closing their eyes to the consequences of the migratory flows.

The spike in the numbers being sent back to Italy in the last two weeks has led to a very visible build-up of migrants sleeping rough in and around major train stations: a development that has been pounced on by far-right politicians.

Renzi threatened on Sunday to implement a "Plan B" to deal with the migrant crisis that would "hurt" Europe.

He did not specify what options he was considering but Italian media reported Monday that Rome could start issuing newly arrived migrants with temporary visas giving them the right to travel throughout the Schengen zone.

Such a move would be politically explosive as it would seriously undermine both the Dublin and Schengen accords.

Alfano will ask his EU counterparts on Tuesday to agree a fairer distribution of migrants throughout the bloc and discuss the possibility of creating processing camps in Libya.

Several countries have come out against any share-out of migrants and operations in Libya would be fraught with practical difficulties given the conflict and chaos engulfing the north African country.