ROME, April 8, 2011 (AFP) - Italy granted temporary residence permits to thousands of Tunisian migrants Thursday on grounds of "humanitarian protection" putting it on collision course with the rest of Europe, France in particular.
Interior Minister Roberto Maroni told parliament the permits would allow the more than 20,000 Tunisian migrants who have arrived in recent weeks to travel freely around the European Union's visa-free area.
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi signed the decree after a cabinet meeting.
Maroni said the move was part of a deal with Tunisia that would ease the deportation of any new arrivals while bolstering border patrols along the Tunisian coast with the help of boats and jeeps provided by Italy.
As part of the deal with Tunisia, a first plane left Lampedusa late Thursday for Tunis carrying some 30 migrants.
Tunisia would not have been able to cope with a mass re-entry of the migrants who have been arriving on Italian shores because of "the fragility of the Tunisian political scene", the interior ministry said.
And as France protested the move, Maroni accused the government there of "hostility" on the immigration issue.
Many French-speaking migrants trying to travel to France had been blocked at the Italy-France border, he said. Tunisia is a former French colony.
"Freedom of movement inside the Schengen area is guaranteed by rules that have to be implemented," Maroni said, ahead of what promise to be heated talks with his French counterpart Claude Gueant scheduled for Friday in Milan.
The 25-country visa-free Schengen Zone covers most of the European Union, but does not include Britain or Ireland.
Berlusconi and French President Nicolas Sarkozy will meet on April 26.
Gueant said Thursday he would protest Italy's move to the European Union, adding that he did not want France to "suffer a wave of immigration" from Tunisia.
The permits would not be enough to move freely around the Schengen zone, he warned.
"It's not enough to have a residency permit in (a member state), you also need identity papers and, above all, the means to support yourself," Gueant said.
"If these conditions are not met, France has every right to send them back to Italy.... That is what we will do," Gueant told AFP.
In March alone, 2,800 undocumented Tunisian migrants had been detained in France, he added: most had been sent back to Italy.
Maroni said he wanted "to come up with a joint system for action" with France that would involve the European Union -- and not leave Italy alone to deal with the problem of mass arrivals of migrants.
"The attitude in Europe is 'every man for himself'," he said.
"We want to turn off the taps," the minister added, pointing out that the flow of African refugees fleeing Libya was also "intensifying".
Some 150 migrants from sub-Saharan Africa were feared dead on Thursday after their boat travelling from Libya capsized in the early hours of Wednesday.
Many of the people fleeing Libya are likely to be granted asylum because of the conflicts and dire conditions in their countries of origin, Maroni said.
Maroni said a total of some 25,800 migrants travelling on 390 boats have arrived on Italian shores so far this year, mostly landing on the tiny island of Lampedusa which is closer to North African shores than to mainland Italy.
The European Commission earlier this month said it was considering granting temporary protection to the Tunisian migrants under a 2001 EU directive never used before, but added that there was no majority of countries in favour.
The mechanism would have to be approved by the European Council, the EU's main decision-making body which represents the 27 member states.
"There is no spirit of cooperation.... The atmosphere is not good," an EU official told AFP earlier on condition of anonymity.
In Tunisia meanwhile, coast guards arrested 190 would-be migrants in Zarzis, in the southeast of the country, Thursday as they tried to reach Italy, the interior ministry said.