June 14, 2015 / 9:35 AM / 2 years ago

Italy's Renzi warns EU on refugees as neighbors block border crossings

Migrants rest after disembarking from the British assault ship HMS Bulwark at the Sicilian port of Catania after being rescued at sea, Italy, June 8, 2015.Antonio Parrinello

ROME (Reuters) - Italy stepped up calls for a change to European asylum rules on Sunday as neighboring states tightened border controls, turning back African migrants and leaving hundreds stranded at the frontier in northern Italy.

In an interview with Milan's Corriere della Sera daily, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said that after toppling Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, the international community bore responsibility for chaos in Libya that has opened the way for hundreds of thousands of migrants to cross by boat to southern Italy.

He called for a change to the so-called Dublin regulations, which assign most asylum seekers to the EU country they first enter and said he would discuss the issue with French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron when they visit Italy this week.

"If the European Council chooses solidarity, then good. If it doesn't, we have a Plan B ready but that would be a wound inflicted on Europe," he said, without giving details.

Italy has long complained that its European partners are shirking their responsibilities and leaving southern Mediterranean countries to handle the migrant emergency without effective support.

In a separate interview on Sunday, Interior Minister Angelino Alfano called for other European countries to take more migrants from Italy and set up centers in Libya to identify genuine asylum seekers and send back those not qualifying.

"Europe, signing as Europe, has to sign repatriation agreements with all the African countries," he said, and a failure to do so would put Italy on a confrontation course with the rest of the 28-nation EU.

"SHOW SOLIDARITY"

"If Europe does not fulfill its own responsibilities and show solidarity, it will find a different Italy facing it."

The angry comments, echoed by other Italian politicians and officials, underlined the growing tensions on migrant policy within the EU, which is already struggling to hold a joint line on other problems including the crises in Greece and Ukraine.

Under the Schengen treaty, free cross-border movement is normally allowed within most of the European Union but France and Austria have stepped up controls on migrants from Italy, turning back hundreds and leaving growing numbers camped out in railway stations in Rome and Milan.

Many have been prevented from entering France from the northern Italian coastal town of Ventimiglia but many have also been halted at the Austrian border near the town of Bolzano on the northeastern frontier.

"The halt to Schengen for a few days is holding them up here but Italy isn't their destination," Renzi said.

The crisis has become one of the most pressing issues facing Renzi's centre-left led government, after the surge in support for the anti-immigration Northern League in last month's regional elections.

Governors in the prosperous regions of Lombardy and Veneto, both Northern League strongholds, have resisted transfers of refugees from overcrowded reception centers in the south.

The League has leapt on fears that immigrants arriving on crowded boats from Africa could bring diseases like malaria and scabies into Italy despite reassurances from health authorities.

A recent assault on a train conductor by a gang of machete-wielding youths of Latin American origin has added further fuel to the League's fiery rhetoric on security and immigration.

"Have a good Saturday. Watch out for scabies, malaria and machetes," the Northern League's bluntly spoken leader Matteo Salvini tweeted at the weekend.

Editing by Mark Heinrich

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