France has launched an investigation and called for a European summit to combat illegal immigration, a day after 124 self-proclaimed Kurds landed in Corsica.
Immigration Minister Eric Besson underscored that the French Mediterranean island could not be allowed to become an entry point for illegal immigrants and mooted a European conference as an investigation began into who the traffickers were.
The migrants, who claimed they were Kurds from Syria, were dropped off near the southern town of Bonifacio on Friday by a boat which then departed, officials said.
It was the biggest known mass-scale landing on the island of migrants, who usually try to enter Europe by sea through Sicily, Malta, Greece and Spain's Canary Islands.
Groups of similar numbers - but made up mostly of Somalis - arrived in Malta this time last year but the number of arrivals fell later in the year, especially when Italy started to immediately return to Libya any migrants found on the High Seas. However there have also been reports of an increase in the number of crossings of the Mediterranean from Benghazi towards Crete and Greece.
EU President Herman Van Rompuy announced during his visit to Malta earlier this month that the EU would hold a summit on immigration in June.
The migrants who arrived in Corsica, 57 men, 29 women -- five of them pregnant -- and 38 children were initially lodged in a gymnasium in Bonifacio but then flown to mainland France to be housed in detention centres in cities such as Marseille and Lyon.
Each "case will be individually assessed", the immigration ministry said, adding that the migrants "will get an interpreter, a medical check-up, information on aid in case of voluntary return and legal help".
Besson earlier said some of the migrants identified themselves as Kurds from Syria and others said they were from North Africa.
Some of the immigrants resisted being shifted out from the gymnasium but were forced into buses. Many had refused a meal late Friday in protest against plans to relocate them.
Several rights groups slammed the government response. The League of Human Rights (LDH) said their transfer to detention centres went against the tenets of the French Republic.
"They are not 'illegals' living underground in France but refugees who after having arrived on French territory have the absolute right ... to seek asylum," it said.
And Ava Basta (That's Enough), a local organisation espousing racial equality, denounced their transfer, saying it would have preferred them to "benefit from hospitality and solidarity that Corsicans have displayed in the past".
But Corsica's prefect, Stephane Bouillon, said the immigrants could demand asylum and added that they were being moved from the gymnasium to ensure "better security and more salubrious surroundings".
Bouillon, the regional governor, said an investigation had been launched "since they were clearly brought in by traffickers whom we are now seeking actively ... to dismantle such networks".
About 80 adults were grilled by police before being sent to the detention centres. They said they had left Syria on trucks for Tunisia, where they boarded a cargo vessel bound for Corsica.
They also told police they had wanted to go to Scandinavia, Ajaccio's state prosecutor Thomas Pison said.
The immigrants were all devoid of identity papers but appeared in good health and were suitably dressed for European winter weather, Corsica's governor Bouillon said.
"They said they did the journey in several stages across the Mediterranean and were transported up to Corsica on a cargo vessel," he added.
A source close to the case said the vessel in question was either Russian or Ukrainian.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) yesterday urged France to ensure that each of the self-proclaimed Kurds was allowed to seek asylum and to ensure a "complete and fair examination" of each case.
"The UNHCR calls upon the French authorities to ensure that each person seeking the protection of France can access a process seeking asylum which will ensure them fair and complete examination of each case," a statement from the agency's French office said.
Yesterday, the immigration ministry said a second vessel suspected of being involved in the mass landing had been identified and was being checked.
Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.Support Us