EU states clamp down on immigrants

  • 2002-08-08
  • Marc Burleigh

The European Union's gates are slowly closing to illegal immigrants, amid warnings that the increasingly right-wing governments in the 15-nation bloc may be turning the region into "Fortress Europe."

Since a June 22-23 EU summit in the Spanish city of Seville dedicated to the issue, Denmark, Italy and Portugal have passed tough new laws cracking down on clandestine immigrants.

Britain has a similar package set to become law in October, while France and the Netherlands are in the process of putting together bills that would impose more restrictions on asylum-seekers.

In Germany, where the center-left government looks unlikely to survive September elections, six conservative-led states have gone to the country's highest court to stop an immigration bill designed to fill a shortage in skilled labor.

At the same time, the European Union has extracted an agreement from prospective new members to jointly ensure that the bloc's eastern borders become harder to cross. Poland has also promised to set up military patrols that would operate between 2003 and 2006, and Rumania is boosting its own frontier measures.

Although each EU country currently looks after its own borders, an agreement in 1999 provided for a common asylum and immigration policy to be in place in 2003. The time frame has been pushed back somewhat but, since the rise of the right and developments of post-September 11, a new impetus toward restrictive measures has emerged.

The European Commission says it now expects EU-wide standards for repatriating illegal immigrants back to their home-countries to be in place by the end of this year, and for a common EU border police force to be in place by 2006, with the long coasts of Italy and Spain, and the major EU air and sea ports to receive stepped-up surveillance.

But voices of concern are being heard. Amnesty International has warned against an EU "war" on illegal immigration, saying human rights and legitimate protection of people fleeing persecution could be sacrificed in the rush to close Europe's doors.

And the U.N. High Commissioner for refugees has repeatedly said that the whole immigration problem has caused an "overheated" debate in Europe - especially once it is realized that the flow of asylum-seekers has actually dropped over the past decade.

The total number of asylum seekers arriving in the European Union last year was 384,530, less than half the 897,330 that came in 10 years ago, its figures show.

Afghans have become the fastest rising group seeking asylum in Europe, up from 7,660 in 1992 to 38,260 last year. There were also 40,577 Iraqi asylum applications in the EU in 2001, against 11,085 in 1991.

The wave of illegal immigrants that washes into the European Union each year has become a "hot button" issue for voters, especially in the context of slowing economies and increasing unemployment.

Far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen made brief political capital out of it in France's presidential poll in April. He was beaten back by incumbent President Jacques Chirac, whose new government has since made immigration one of its priorities. It plans to close a controversial Red Cross-run refugee center near the channel tunnel to Britain, to cut the vetting period for asylum applications from seven months to one month, and to enable possible forced deportation for those whose application is rejected.

Dutch populist Pim Fortuyn, too, played the issue up before he was assassinated just before May general elections in the Nether-lands. His Pim Fortuyn List party, which went on to win a place in the coalition government which takes power this month, campaigned on "the Netherlands is full" slogan. It and its two coalition partners agreed last month to deny political asylum to foreigners entering the Netherlands without identity papers - something that would reportedly exclude 80 percent of those seeking refuge.

Britain and Spain have led the charge for a more aggressive EU foreign policy to deter would-be economic migrants but have failed to bring their partners, notably France and Sweden, around to their way of thinking.

Thus at the Seville summit British Prime Minister Tony Blair had to give up on the union imposing sanctions on countries judged to be sources of clandestine migration.