European Union leaders are expected to take a tough stand against illegal immigration into the wealthy 15-nation bloc when they meet Friday and Saturday in the Spanish city of Seville. Clamping down on illegal immigration has become a priority for mainstream politicians in Europe since far-right anti-immigrant political parties registered electoral gains in several countries over the past few months.
The drive against illegal immigration is being spearheaded by Spain, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, with strong support from Britain and Italy. The aim is to reassure anxious West Europeans, who fear their countries have been overly tolerant of economic migrants and asylum seekers from the Balkans, the Middle East, South Asia and Africa.
Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique says the EU should impose sanctions on those countries that fail to crack down on illegal immigrants leaving or passing through their territory, or countries that refuse to take back those of their citizens who are rejected by European nations.
Mr. Pique says there should be no doubt that, if there is repeated noncompliance by such countries, they will have to weather the consequences. But France, Sweden and the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, say slapping sanctions on poor countries will just add to the poverty that forces people to emigrate in the first place. They argue that the EU should offer incentives to such countries to help them control emigration, rather than punish them for not doing so.
EU foreign ministers were unable to agree earlier this week on just what they should do about illegal immigration. So it will be up to EU presidents and prime ministers to come up with a plan at the summit.
The European Commission estimates that a half million illegal immigrants enter the European Union every year. Legal immigrants number 680,000 a year. They are mostly recruited under temporary labor schemes or to high-tech jobs, although some are allowed to join relatives already in Europe.
European Commission President Romano Prodi says the bloc must be intransigent in fighting illegal immigration so as to better integrate legal immigrants, who, he says, are necessary to supplement the EU's aging workforce.
Mr. Prodi says the EU needs to send a clear message that it will be tough on illegal immigration, but he says welcoming more legal immigrants will benefit Europe, because they are a source of vitality and energy.
The EU leaders are expected to agree on bolstering border controls and to set a timetable for enacting a common policy toward asylum-seekers.
Stefan Berglund, an official with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, says he is concerned that all the tough talk on illegal immigration will make it more difficult for legitimate asylum-seekers fleeing persecution to find refuge in Western Europe.
"We have no problems with tighter border controls," Mr. Berglund commented, "That actually can even be quite good. The concern that we have in this respect...is that people will possibly be turned back at the borders. We demand that asylum-seekers be treated in the way that international legal instruments provide for, and that these asylum-seekers should be able to get into a country and ask for asylum and then be dealt with appropriately."
Migration experts say media images of Moroccan boat people washed up on the shores of southern Spain or Afghan asylum-seekers trying to jump on trains through the channel tunnel from France to Britain paint a misleading picture. They say most illegal migrants enter the EU legally on tourist visas, find work and stay on.