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EU: Immigration Controls May Not Solve Problem

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The European Union's Executive Commission has proposed new rules affecting asylum seekers amid a deluge of illegal immigration into the union. The proposals aim to clarify member states' responsibilities for handling asylum applications. The draft rules, which must be approved by member governments, may clarify the administrative situation but can do little to solve the overall problem. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports.

Prague, 2 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- They come by day and by night -- the asylum seekers. On rafts, or packed on leaking boats. Hidden inside trucks, vans, or airplanes. Or even walking over mountains or through forests.

Their aim is usually to reach the countries of northern Europe, where they can find jobs, apply for asylum and establish new lives, or in some cases arrange for further transit to the U.S., Canada, or Australia.

But many, even most, of those who eventually make it to Germany or Britain first enter the EU through the southern countries -- such as Greece, Italy, and Spain.

This geographical situation has led the EU's Executive Commission in Brussels to propose new regulations which would make the country of first entry responsible for handling the asylum application.

The proposals, which must be approved by all EU states, also make members responsible for an asylum application if an individual has been able to enter because of lax border controls. The draft rules are likely to provoke controversy because they would place a considerable load on the Mediterranean members.

Although they may better regulate the handling of asylum seekers, the new rules will do nothing to stem the tide of would-be immigrants to the EU. No one knows how many people try to enter the EU illegally, but estimates put the figure at half a million a year. Given the persistence of poverty and conflict in many parts of the world, there is no end in sight to this influx from countries and regions as diverse as Albania, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Romania, China, North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa.

This has led to a debate about whether the EU should try to close its doors, becoming a sort of "fortress Europe," or acknowledge that the problem is a permanent one -- and one that can even be turned to the advantage. That's because populations in the advanced industrial countries are aging, opening up the prospect of labor shortages, shortages which immigrants could ease.

Officials at the International Organization of Migration (IOM) say they expect EU member states in future will move toward policies of orderly, legalized migration. The IOM's Chief of Mission in Vienna Irena Vojackova-Sollorano says demographic trends will eventually make widespread legal immigration programs inevitable. She tells RFE/RL:

"In the long run, this is where Europe is heading -- namely, to look at different schemes of legal immigration and to provide people with options, so that they don't have to come illegally."

Vojackova says that -- contrary to what many people think -- there will be room for the unskilled newcomers as well as for qualified professionals. She says:

"Of course, the [EU's need for] the highly skilled, this is what receives attention in the media, but just looking across Europe, the unemployment figures are relatively low, and when you look at the job openings that are all over Europe, even when we have local unemployment, there are low-level jobs which are never filled, because nobody wants to do them, in Europe."

Be that as it may, another migration expert, Jean-Claude Chenais of the French National Institute for Demographic Studies, says that political decisions to increase legal immigration will not be easy. In contrast to Vojackova, he says unemployment rates are still high in many countries and that politicians will need courage to tackle the issue. He says:

"There is a contradiction; you have different lobbies working. You have the employers, who need workers in given sectors of the economy, in spite of massive unemployment, and you have the trade unions, the members of trade unions, who are against [immigration] because they say that new workers tend to depress wages. And then you have the public, which is generally against [immigration] thinking that immigrants are a source of delinquency, of crime."

Chenais supports a coordinated policy of legal immigration at the EU level, with clear quotas by occupation for migrants from various regions of the world. He notes Italy has already defined such a scheme.

But he is concerned about the impact of the coming Eastward enlargement of the Union. He says it has potential to be what he calls a "catastrophe" by making it more difficult to control crime:

"Poland [for instance] has a strong historical contact with Ukraine, and Ukraine is linked to Russia, and so, you see the problem [in terms of crime control]. And the same goes for Romania. Romania is linked to Bulgaria, and [there are] links also to the countries of the Middle East."

Vojackova of the IOM, by contrast, sees Eastern Europe not so much as a problem, but as an opportunity for the EU:

"A well-regulated labor migration scheme would be the way to go, because just looking historically at the patterns of migration from Eastern Europe, people do not like to leave their countries -- even if they are impoverished. They always prefer to stay in their country, and if they leave, they leave [to] earn some money and go back. So this is an ideal opportunity for the EU to develop short-term labor migration schemes, to offer it to Eastern Europeans who will gladly take it, and who will also go back [home]."

At any rate, the problem associated with illegal immigration is pressing for the EU, and in need of imaginative solutions.