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EU's 'Fortress Europe' Buckles Under Immigrant Siege

Refugees from a closed Red Cross center called Sangatte, near Calais in France, in 2002
Refugees from a closed Red Cross center called Sangatte, near Calais in France, in 2002
BRUSSELS -- Each summer, European Union countries are overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of migrants struggling to their shores in search of a better life.

Scenes of French authorities evicting would-be immigrants from a makeshift camp near Calais that officials call a den of crime, known as "the jungle," are highlighting the problem this week.

But it's a problem that first hit European headlines a decade ago, so it may seem surprising just how little the EU has done to create an effective policy on immigration, asylum, or repatriation.

Now some countries are taking matters into their own hands: Italy has already begun summarily turning back immigrants caught at sea, and it's raising protests by human rights groups.

Italy, Greece, and other southern EU countries bear the brunt of the wave of arrivals across the Mediterranean Sea from Africa, a passage fraught with danger. Hundreds die each year when their overcrowded and unseaworthy vessels capsize.

Still, more than 37,000 "boat people" arrived in Italy alone last year. This year, the Italian authorities took the unprecedented step of turning back boats with immigrants at sea before they land on shore. The measure has reduced by half the number of illegal immigrants arriving in Italy.

Italian officials deny they're breaking the law, but the new policy has provoked an outcry from human rights group who say it breaches international obligations by denying immigrants the chance to apply for asylum.

Difficult Days

EU interior and justice ministers met in Brussels on September 21 to discuss another testing summer. Afterward, EU Commissioner for Justice, Freedom, and Security Jacques Barrot -- whose job is to ensure member states comply with international law -- said the EU has asked Italy to explain its new policy.

"We are currently examining their response," Barrot said. "We have reminded [Italy] of the principle that [immigrants] must not be returned to countries where there their lives are in danger. That said, what we want is to address the causes, resolve the problem."

Images from Calais on September 22, when French authorities evicted migrants, most of them reportedly Afghans
News agencies report eight Italian maritime operations involving more than 700 would-be immigrants resulted in no asylum requests.

People fleeing violent areas such as Somalia and Sudan's Darfur region would normally be eligible for asylum in the European Union. But migrants in search of a better life are usually denied the right to stay.

Human rights groups say migrants returning to their home countries often receive brutal treatment. A new Human Rights Watch (HRW) report says those forced by the Italian Navy to return to Libya -- a transit country for asylum seekers from sub-Saharan Africa -- are detained in "inhuman and degrading" conditions. It says returning migrants are beaten, robbed and kept in overcrowded conditions.

But Italy has received support from like-minded EU countries. Greece, flooded by tens of thousands of immigrants crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey, says it doesn't have the facilities to cope. Malta and Cyprus have been overwhelmed by the number of immigrants arriving on their shores. Spain, which periodically amnesties illegal immigrants, is also straining.

French Immigration Minister Eric Besson has proposed urgent measures, including for the EU's joint border management authority, Frontex, to follow Italy's example by turning back immigrant vessels at sea.

More Than Just Border Controls

Commissioner Barrot said only that Frontex rules would be "clarified."

Swedish Immigration Minister Tobias Bilstrom, who chaired the meeting as the representative of the current EU Presidency, said short-term responses must be accompanied by long-term solutions.

"The question is not just about border controls," Bilstrom said, "it's also about increased cooperation [within the EU and with transit countries]."

EU regulations stipulate that immigrants must be processed by the country in which they first set foot. That policy angers the southern EU countries that serve as transit routes for migrants bound for richer, northern EU countries. They say governments not directly affected by the Mediterranean migration should pay Italy, Malta, and other southern European countries compensation.

Among long-term proposals is a resettlement scheme for asylum seekers who've lodged applications outside the EU.

EU attempts to cooperate with transit and "source" countries in Africa have seen little success. Italy notably failed to get Libya to block what's now the main southern route into the EU after Frontex cooperation with Tunisia and Mauretania largely closed off a popular route along Africa's west coast. Turkey, which has a readmission treaty with the EU, often refuses to honor it.

Barrot said on September 21 that the only viable long-term solution for the EU is to start processing would-be immigrants on the "southern shore of the Mediterranean." But the lack of cooperation inside the EU so far means that's unlikely to happen any time soon.