BRUSSELS -- Following the political upheaval in Tunisia, thousands of North African migrants have washed up on the shores of the Italian island of Lampedusa.
But despite the European Union's vocal support for pro-democracy demonstrations in the Middle East, the 5,500 new arrivals fleeing the ensuing chaos -- including more than 100 children -- are not exactly being welcomed with open arms.
Rights groups say that EU member states have been less concerned with assisting the migrants than on tightening border security to prevent future refugees from making it to Europe's shores.
“The European Union is very good at cooperating at the repressive side of things, at the border control side of things," says Ana Fontal, a spokeswoman for the European Council for Refugees and Exiles, "but is really dragging its feet when it comes to international protection of people who really need it."
The issue of the North African migrants is due to be discussed by EU interior ministers in Brussels on February 24. But Germany and Austria have already said that they will reject any Tunisian refugees arriving via Italy.Prepared To Assist
Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, meanwhile, has sent a formal request to the European Commission and the EU border agency, Frontex, to help strengthen border surveillance on the island of Lampedusa, located just 40 kilometers from Tunisia. A dozen EU member states have since indicated that they will help with equipment and personnel.
Monjia (right) and Aicha -- two Tunisian immigrants who arrived in Lampedusa -- walk in the streets of a holiday village on the island on February 16.
Cecilia Malmstrom, the EU commissioner responsible for home affairs, says Brussels is prepared to assist Italy -- as well as any other member state willing to take in migrants -- with financial support and Frontex personnel.
Malmstrom's spokeman, Michele Cercone, tells RFE/RL that discussions about the aid were ongoing.
“We are now on one hand assessing what sort of financial aid we can give to Italy to cope with this type of emergency situation, as they requested," Cercone says. "And on the other hand, Commissioner Malmstrom is in constant contact with the Frontex agency and the agency is currently setting up a mission that will take place in the Mediterranean sea in order to reinforce the border surveillance.”
The exact amount of aid has not been settled yet.
Michal Parzyszak, a spokesman for Frontex, says an operational plan for dealing with the influx could be ready as soon as this weekend.
But while Rome is expected to ask other member states to take some migrants, there are thus far no takers. In addition to outright rejections from Germany and Austria, France has also sent strong signals that it was in no mood to accept refugees. Rapid-Reaction Force
Brussels is also considering moving up the implementation of a joint effort by Frontex and member states' border services to secure the union's frontiers in the Mediterranean. That plan was originally scheduled to go into effect in June.
Italy is also considering asking for the deployment of a rapid-reaction force consisting of border guards from different member states. Such a force can be assembled in 10 days and was requested by Greece last year to stem migrant flows coming through Turkey.
The new arrivals are overwhelmingly men. It is also believed that some 30 to 40 people have disappeared and are presumed to have drowned, attempting to make the journey across the Mediterranean.
Maroni, the Italian interior minister, warns that as many as 80,000 refugees could arrive in the country in the coming months, a figure critics call an exaggeration.
Christopher Hein, the director of the Italian Refugees Council, accuses Rome of overreacting to the crisis.
“Five thousand people should not be such an emergency. I personally believe [Italy's reaction] is a little bit exaggerated," Hein says. "It is also not realistic now to speak about a European burden-sharing because then Spain and Greece could [ask for] the same [help], not to speak about bigger countries like Germany.”