NEWS

Immigrants an ongoing challenge for EU

At first, the (mostly) German press talked about «camps.» Then, when this negatively loaded word began to irritate Germany’s intellectuals and opposition parties, it was replaced by more elegant terms such as «refugee settlement» or «asylum center.» German Interior Minister Otto Schilly’s proposal made to the recent summit of interior and justice ministers in the Netherlands was politely expressed. Italy supported it, but it was strongly criticized by the Christian Democratic opposition and citizens of Germany, provoking an unusually brusque rejection by France, Sweden and Spain. It was Britain’s Home Secretary David Blunkett who first raised of the idea of a center for the reception and control of illegal immigrants in northern Africa. He proposed it to the European Union, which rejected it. His European partners at first appeared to agree, but as the summit progressed, France, with the support of the Spaniards and Swedes, shot down the idea. Yet Schilly’s idea was not illogical. «Either we push the problem aside until it reaches Europe or we deal with it. I prefer the second option,» he told his partners. New European Commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security Rocco Buttiglione, who called illegal immigration a time bomb for the European Union, appeared to agree. «We have to think about how to deal with illegal immigration, particularly in Italy, where the number of illegal immigrants is increasing steadily,» said Schilly, noting that the problem was not solely Italy’s, since of those who enter that country illegally, about 80 percent, go on to Germany or other parts of northern Europe. No more tragedy Another concern is to halt the number of deaths by drowning among immigrants trying to reach Europe across the Mediterranean. Italy should not be left to its fate, but a comprehensive solution should be found so that people are no longer crowded onto boats bound for the Italian island of Lampedusa, south of Sicily and close to the Libyan coast. Portugal’s outgoing Commissioner Antonio Vitorino suggested pilot programs for reception and «selection» centers for immigrants in five countries in northern Africa: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania. According to an anonymous source, agreement was reached for a specific plan that is scheduled to be debated at the EU’s November summit. Destabilization It was then that France dug its heels in and, via its minister Dominic de Villepin, said it would take no part in the plan which it said was «extremely destabilizing for the five countries involved.» So the plan was not shelved completely, but has been put on hold. Roughly, Britain, Italy and Austria are in favor, and France, Spain, Sweden and Portugal against. Also supporting the idea are some of the new members, such as the Baltic states and Poland, that have asked for reception centers to be set up to control the wave of immigrants from war-torn Chechnya. Ukraine, which hopes to join the EU, has expressed a similar desire. So the question now is whether a very difficult problem – and one Greece knows well in all its ramifications – will lead to the establishment of «reception centers» turning Europe into the «fortress» described by some after the fall of communist regimes in the 1990s, when fears were first expressed of «an immigration tide» that would destabilize the Europe of the (then) 15. Shortly afterward, at the December 1991 summit of what was then the EC, Slovenia and then Croatia received the green light for independence at the initiative of Hans Dietrich Genscher, heralding the dissolution of Yugoslavia and a four-year war that sent waves of refugees into Europe. Some were absorbed, others eventually returned. Meanwhile, Greece successfully absorbed economic immigrants from Bulgaria, Russia, Poland and Ukraine, and a major influx of Albanians. Waves of refugees that did not directly influence Central and Western Europe were set in motion by the allied assault against Kosovo in 1999. Finally, repeated waves of immigrants coming to the West resulted from the 10-year uprising of Kurds against the military in southeastern Turkey, as well as from the volatile situation in northern Iraq, the isolation of Iraq due to the 12-year embargo, and the chaotic mess in Iraq following the fall of Saddam Hussein over the past year and a half. War and poverty War and poverty frequently force people in Africa to travel great distances to reach the northern shores of the continent. These twin scourges make them the victims of ruthless human traffickers who squeeze them onto small craft (as Greece has seen almost daily in the Aegean), make them swim across to Gibraltar in search of the Promised Land of Europe, or crowd them into containers. Many do not survive the journey. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 5,000 people have drowned in the past decade while trying to reach Europe, and an unknown number have died crossing the Sahara or the oceans. The problem is an old and indeed almost insoluble one, but it has assumed extreme dimensions just when Europe no longer has much scope for absorbing immigrants; France, for example, has taken in shiploads of people fleeing past wars in Algeria, Indochina and Vietnam. Then there is the issue of granting asylum, a much-desired status that many aspire to, often without cause. However, this means that those who do have rights are often deprived of them. Perhaps this is one of the factors that gave rise to the idea of reception centers in Britain. Or perhaps it was Europe’s inability to absorb more immigrants. There is no other way to explain the idea of camps in Libya which, according to some sources, already host 1 million people a year traveling through to Europe. Libya is now returning to the international community after 18 years of isolation due to a US-led embargo. Still, one wonders what legislative framework exists for the processing of refugees in Libya, as well as in the other countries of the Maghreb region that are candidates for the reception centers. Repatriation Earlier this month, under very difficult conditions on the island of Lampedusa due to the arrival from Libya of a large number of illegal immigrants, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi sent back most of them on a C-130, then took off to Tripoli for talks with Colonel Ghaddafi. Whether or not this was a coincidence, the Libyan leader chose the time to send 100 asylum seekers back to Egypt. The next day, Italy defended its decision to continue to «repatriate» hundreds of illegal immigrants. Foreign Minister Guiseppe Pisanu invoked international terrorism, which was exploiting illegal immigrants. This could be the case since, as Schilly recently said, terrorism is like the many-headed Hydra; cut off one head and 10 more grow in its place. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has urged the European Union to formulate a specific immigration policy, with controlled immigration of workers. Those who try to peer into the future claim that the best solution is to cure the problem where it is originates. However, that is undoubtedly utopian.