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EU: States Working Toward Common Immigration Policy

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Illegal immigrants and asylum seekers continue to flood into the European Union and neighboring European states, often risking their lives in the search for a livelihood. As yet, the EU has no common policy on immigration, and there is debate about how much power it should attain in this key area. RFE/RL looks at the problem and the accompanying debate.

Prague, 14 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The bodies that wash ashore regularly on the coasts of Spain and Italy bear mute witness to the desires of people from the developing world to start a new life in Western Europe. They are among those who do not survive the often perilous journey as illegal immigrants or asylum seekers. But many thousands of others complete the trip, either through their individual efforts or with the help of smuggling rings.

Sometimes, the organization of this trafficking in human beings is blindingly obvious, such as the arrival in broad daylight on the Spanish coast of boats laden with immigrants from North Africa. At Tarifa Beach, one of Europe's biggest surfing spots, they stream ashore through the waves.

Many head for the hills, hoping to disappear and pick up work in the black economy in Spain or farther north in France, Belgium, or Germany. Others wait quietly on the beach, knowing that the Spanish police will issue them a written expulsion order, giving them 15 days to leave the country. That is virtually an open invitation for them also to head north in search of a new life.

Britain, in particular, has been a target destination for illegal immigrants and asylum seekers. Newcomers can disappear quickly into the big communities of foreigners there. It's estimated that there are up to 1 million illegal immigrants living in Britain, while more than 70,000 people applied for asylum there in 2001.

As a result of the inflow, Britain earlier this month introduced draconian new laws designed to eradicate its image as an easy target for asylum seekers. The British blame the problem in part on their EU neighbors, saying that easily circumvented expulsion orders -- like those issued in Spain -- allow authorities simply to pass the problem on to other countries.

The EU is working on a union-wide approach to immigration regulation, which could close such loopholes. But European Commission spokesman Pietro Petrucci said, "At the moment, this [matter] is still entirely in the hands of the member states, so there are no common rules of dealing with the first arrival [at the EU's borders]."

The common rules have been under preparation since 2001 but remain caught up in the bureaucratic process. The approval process is likely to be made even more complicated by the expected admission in 2004 of 10 new member states, mostly from Central and Eastern Europe.

But there is still controversy over whether Brussels should have wide powers in this area. Germany and Austria, where the issue of immigration is particularly sensitive, are wary of giving up too much of their own regulatory powers. In Britain, too, there are doubts.

Timothy Karkoke is the British Conservative Party's spokesman on immigration issues in the European Parliament. He favors bilateral agreements rather than union-wide regulations, saying they are more efficient. "We need a far wider range of bilateral agreements between the nation states in Europe, the present member states of the EU, and, indeed, also those states which are actually going into the union as part of the enlargement process," Karkoke said.

Karkoke referred to France, which has been criticized by Britain for allowing illegal immigrants to cross the English Channel from the Sangatte migrant center near Calais. "There are a number of issues here where European countries are not behaving totally in line with either the United Nations convention of 1951 on refugees, nor are they adopting procedures which actually deal with cases fairly, or which at the same time avoid passing on to other states the responsibility that they should be dealing with themselves," Karkoke said.

On the other hand, Gervais Appave, director of policy at the International Committee on Migration in Geneva, favors union-wide regulation. "There is very widespread agreement that it would, indeed, be beneficial for Europe to develop a common policy position on migration and migration management," Appave said.

He said the present system is fragmented and plays into the hands of the traffickers. "The perception in many developing countries is that there is a kind of patchwork approach to immigration in Europe and that there are certain spots which are soft spots and others which are hard spots, and smugglers take advantage of that perception in order to encourage people to migrate through irregular channels," Appave said.

In Brussels, analyst Joanne Apap calls for greater realism and less hypocrisy in the immigration debate. She said that because of the demographic situation, Europe needs foreign workers and that this should be more openly recognized. "Europe was also tolerating a certain [number] of illegal workers, and they needed them, and they exploited them, for the fact that these people benefited the [host] economy. So now we are saying: 'Let's stop with this kind of hypocritical policy. Let's admit that we do need people,'" Apap said.

Apap, who works at the Centre for European Policy Studies, said legalized immigration programs benefit both the host country and the country of origin. "What is very interesting is that the amount of remittances sent by migrants themselves back to their countries of origin while they are working is very high compared to the amount of aid the EU actually sends these countries. So, we need also to realize that migration constitutes in itself a part of development policy," Apap said.

Apap also noted that Spain already has a pilot scheme that allows up to 10,000 immigrants to work there legally. She said that this is a model that could be followed by other EU members. She said overall regulation of immigration programs could be done by Brussels, with the individual countries setting their own quotas of needed workers.

She said there also needs to be recognition of the fact that not all immigrants will want to return home after their stay in Europe. She said proper integration programs must be developed to cope with this eventuality.