‘Foreigners shouldn’t get same benefits as French’

Reports on Tuesday of a massive influx of migrants from Italy into France has reopened an old row over mass immigration into France. One French MP has said it is time France restricted the rights of foreigners to claim welfare benefits.

‘Foreigners shouldn't get same benefits as French’
Immigrants prepare to bord a train in Italy bound for France. Photo: AFP

Authorities in the south east of France are growing alarmed at the rising number of African immigrants pouring through the border with Italy, according to reports on Tuesday.

The news of the massive influx of east Africans, mostly from Eritrea, has led the local centre-right MP Eric Ciotti to call for an overhaul of France’s immigration system, to make sure foreigners do not have the same access to welfare benefits as French nationals.

According to Le Figaro newspaper authorities in the south east region of France held a crisis meeting in Nice recently to discuss the huge jump in migrants coming across the border from Italy.

The rise is due to the massive numbers of immigrants arriving in Italy from Africa– 61, 591 between January and June this year, compared to 7, 913 for the same period in 2013.

Eritreans made up 31 percent of this total, while people fleeing war-torn Syria accounted for 17 percent.

This has increased the "migratory pressure on the border with Italy," the French report said, adding that 5,200 arrests had been made there so far in 2014.

Reacting to the news Eric Ciotti, the UMP deputy for the Alpes-Maritimes department, said France needed “to reduce the attractiveness of the country from a social capacity.”

“It is not logical that foreigners have the same benefits as nationals,” said Ciotti.

The UMP deputy went on to say that France “is becoming the weak link in immigration policy” and it should follow the example of the UK, where Prime Minister David Cameron wants to tighten restrictions on benefits to unemployed EU immigrants.

Ciotti did soften his tone though when it came to the subject of immigration in general.

“France has always reached out to the persecuted. Do not confuse asylum, a way for our country to be faithful to its human rights traditions, with massive illegal immigration networks,” he said.

The increasingly influential National Front pointed to the fact that they have long called for reductions in welfare benefits for foreigners, whether it be access to social housing or family allowances.

France’s government attempted on Tuesday to play down fears of mass illegal migration to France.

The interior ministry told AFP that "everything, including a drop in asylum-seekers in France in the first half of 2014, points to the fact that migrants see France as a transit country."

For Pierre Henry, from one of France’s immigrants’ rights groups France Terre d’Asile, the problems have arisen because of the refusal of the European Union to help out Italy, which has been asking for help since the beginning of the year.”

“There has been no response,” he said.

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How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.