The plight of African refugees trying to reach Europe has attracted world attention. Many human rights groups condemn the deportation of asylum seekers as a violation of the Geneva Conventions. Analysts are calling for a more humane and unified E.U. immigration law.
Desperate to Leave
Earlier this month, hundreds of men from impoverished African nations forced their way past guard posts and barbed wire into Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Mellila on Morocco’s northern coast. In the ensuing fight, several were killed. Most of those who entered the Spanish territory were immediately deported. The Moroccan government has flown planeloads of illegal African immigrants back to their countries of origin: Senegal, Ivory Coast, Mali and elsewhere. But human rights groups accuse Rabat of dumping many desperate people in the desert just outside its borders, a charge that the government denies.
Karl Kopp of Proasyl, a German advocacy group for asylum seekers, insists that the immigrants’ rights have been violated. “They were deported without any interview, without any access to legal aid, without access to an asylum procedure. This is a violation of the Geneva Conventions,” says Mr. Kopp. He notes that some Africans fleeing poverty or persecution travel for months, sometimes years, to reach the northern African coast in the hope of crossing the Mediterranean Sea and reaching Western Europe. Some never make it.
“They live in refugee camps for five-to-ten years, in Kenya, in Tanzania, in Algeria and other places. Everywhere in Africa, we have refugee camps in a very desperate situation. These people normally are not able to make this long journey in the direction of Europe. So it’s only a minority we see in front of the borders of yes, I would say – ‘Fortress Europe,’" says Mr. Kopp.
In response to the recent crisis, European Union president Jose Manuel Barroso says, “human rights cannot be violated in the name of security.” But he adds that illegal immigration from Morocco to Europe via the Spanish enclaves is not just Morocco’s and Spain’s problem, but a wider European issue.
During the past decade, coastal Mediterranean countries such as Spain, Italy and
Greece have become launching pads for a growing number of African and other immigrants seeking livelihoods in Western Europe. Two years ago, for example, Italian immigration officials reported that some three thousand migrants from Africa landed on the island of Lampedusa, between Italy and Tunisia, in just one month. Some migrants have been granted asylum or immigrant status, but the majority have entered the European Union illegally.
Emiliao Viano, professor of justice, law and society at American University in Washington, says illegal immigration is a huge problem in Europe. “These people are unregistered. These people do not have full access to education, health care, employment and benefits," says Professor Viano. "There is a potential for exploitation, particularly women and children. There is also the fact that at times, because they cannot access the legal labor market, they resort to petty crime to survive and therefore they become problematic for the security of the urban areas.”
Professor Viano says human trafficking, illegal drug peddling and prostitution are among the worst ills of illegal immigration. And the absence of border controls among E.U. member states enables criminals as well as immigrants to cross national boundaries. Citizens of many European countries are demanding stronger immigration controls, including the deportation of illegal immigrants. And many politicians are complying.
William Zartman, Director of the Conflict Management Program at The Johns Hopkins University in Washington, says that in addition to rising fears of crime and terrorism, many Europeans are worried that a huge influx of people from other cultures threatens their own national identities. “Africa is producing a labor force far beyond its capability to handle. Europe, on the other hand, is facing a huge identity crisis. The countries of Europe, one after another, are importing large numbers of people whose presence challenges what it is to be Spanish, German, French, Belgian, Dutch and so on,” notes Professor Zartman.
Europeans Are Weary of Diversity
For example, Germany has a foreign population of about seven-and-a-half million. About three million of these immigrants are Muslims. A growing number of mosques, non-western markets, people dressed in ethnic clothing, and other signs of foreign cultures have begun to change the face of large German cities such as Frankfurt, Cologne and Hamburg. Klaus Larres, a professor of international relations at the University of London, says these changes sometimes create a perception that there are more immigrants in Western Europe than actually exist.
“If a white person wants to move to Germany, Britain or France, in general, I think the bureaucracy is much more ready to accept these people than if a black person comes from somewhere in Africa. There are more prejudices – unjustified, stereotypical prejudices. And I think that has to be faced up to,” says Professor Larres.
In recent years, Europe has been closing its gates to immigrants. Expensive surveillance equipment has been placed along the coast of Gibraltar. Italian authorities have worked out agreements with some African countries to help keep would-be immigrants at home. Spain is putting pressure on Morocco to keep immigrants from its shores and it is deporting those who reach its territory.
EU Immigration Policy
But critics say Europe should not turn its back on immigrants if it wants to become a new model of civilization. Furthermore, most demographers say Western Europe needs a young immigrant labor force to help support its aging population.
Most analysts agree that the European Union needs a unified immigration law based on a respect for human rights. This means that asylum seekers must be heard and assured protection before they are deported from any European country. Most observers agree that Western Europe alone may not be able to solve the problems of poor and oppressed Africans, but it must ensure the rights of those who arrive on Europe’s shores.
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