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Britain: London Acts To Limit Asylum Seekers

Britain is installing strict new rules to control asylum seekers. The unilateral move comes amid a rising tide of irregular immigration into the European Union, and London's action looks sure to increase pressure on the EU to toughen unionwide rules.

Prague, 4 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Amid increasing anxiety over the rising tide of illegal immigration into the European Union, Britain has become the latest EU member to move toward stricter controls.

Tired of waiting for common measures from the EU, the British government announced last week new rules covering a particular group of immigrants, mainly asylum seekers who have passed through "safe countries" before arriving in Britain. Authorities will be allowed to deport these people within days in the future.

The British plan is raising tensions with neighboring France, the safe country from which many of the foreign asylum seekers come, and to which they would be returned. London is expected to press the new government in Paris to close the refugee camp at Sangatte, near Calais, a popular departure point for illegal immigrants going to Britain.

London has long sought closure of the camp, now even more so because asylum requests are rising rapidly: They totaled nearly 20,000 in the first three months of the year.

Other countries, facing similar pressures, are also acting to cut immigration. They include Denmark, which has reversed its previous liberal stance on the issue, and Italy, where the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is enacting legislation making it more difficult for immigrants to enter the country.

Certainly, the borders of most European countries remain under siege. A study done for the EU in April and May shows that more than 4,500 illegal immigrants were detected in that period at a total of 25 European airports. Spanish Interior Minister Mariano Rajoy quotes the study as saying airlines appeared to be allowing people on board with false or inadequate documents.

Rajoy was speaking in Rome last week at a ministerial conference that discussed the feasibility of creating a common European border security force. The ministers of the EU member states and the 13 EU candidate countries agreed to set up a task force that would coordinate efforts to curb illegal immigration at air and sea ports. The task force is seen as a first step toward the creation of the common border guard.

EU Justice Commissioner Antonio Vitorino said over the weekend that a common border police force could become a reality in five years. He described the process of creation as gradual, starting with a mere co-ordination of efforts. The project is politically sensitive, in that individual states are wary of ceding any sovereignty over control of their borders. Vitorino's spokesman Lionello Gabrici said there will always be national border guards, and that what is being proposed is an additional Euro team that would be available when needed. "For example, if you want to check on what is happening in the Mediterranean Sea, by satellite, using the Galileo European system, then you can have people detached from certain member states which are running this particular task force on behalf of all the other member states, and these people will be financed, and sort of seconded [to you], by the member states," Gabrici said.

But there is a limit to what can be achieved through border surveillance. Critics point out that if the EU had a program for legal migration, that would ease the pressure to migrate illegally. Joanna Apap, a research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels, said the attempt to virtually seal the EU's borders has led to a major rise in illegal immigration, and has driven people into the hands of the human traffickers.

"By creating legal channels and creating more rights in future for potential workers -- because [after all], we [in Europe] need these workers, it's not only a question of [them] needing us -- that should automatically reduce the [number] of people using asylum falsely, or migrating illegally," Apap said.

She cautioned, however, that the current political climate is not favorable for a debate on opening up the EU to legal immigration, even if the aging of European populations makes immigration economically attractive. "Nowadays, what we risk [is that] instead of having a more generous policy, unfortunately the climate [of opinion] seems to be going more toward more restrictive [policy] and more repressive measures, so I think we must be very careful about the risk of opening that debate [on legal immigration]," Apap said.

The Geneva-based International Organization for Migration is also in favor of legal immigration, not least because a properly regulated program would help defuse the growing fear of foreigners in Europe. IOM spokesman Jean-Philippe Chauzy said his group: "believes that one of the ways of fighting xenophobia is by promoting legal, regular migration to ensure that those migrants coming to our countries to fill in jobs identified in sectors of the economy where the jobs are available would be considered as positive contributors to the host society. Irregular migration basically forces migrants into the informal sector, and that definitely plays into the hands of those who today are adopting xenophobic lines."

Chauzy also noted what he sees as the anomaly that Britain is strengthening its defenses against asylum seekers at the same moment that reports say the government in London is considering allowing entry to 120,000 legal immigrants to fill vacant jobs.