Just over one hundred kilometers away from the African coast, the Italian island of Lampedusa is closer to Tunisia than to mainland Italy. Every day hundreds of Africans from Tunisia, Libya, Morocco and other African countries set sail for Lampedusa, the closest portal to the European Union. Italian immigration officials report close to three thousand migrants from Africa landed on Lampedusa in June alone. Hundreds drowned on the way.
Emiliao Viano, professor of justice, law and society at American University in Washington, says Italy's long coastline makes it a prime landing pad for streams of illegal immigrants not only from Africa, but also from Eastern Europe, Middle East and even Asia. "On top of it, we know about all the conflicts between the Kurds and the Turks, the whole conflict now in the Middle East with Iraq and Afghanistan and other trouble spots where people feel the need to flee,” says Mr. Viano. “And very often Italy, since it juts into the Mediterranean and is so close to North Africa, is a very attractive country for landing. Many of these illegal immigrants come by land and very often do cross over the former Yugoslavian territory because they know it's very easy then to reach Italy."
Some of these people flee dire poverty, others fear harsh political oppression. In 2002 an estimated 25,000 people entered Italy illegally. Italian authorities have since worked out agreements with some African countries to stop migrants before they leave.
Spain, Greece and Austria also are on the receiving end of EU immigration. From there, droves of migrants, legal and illegal, move on to northern Europe (countries like France, United Kingdom and Germany) in search of a better livelihood. Some northern European countries, notably Germany, have been seeking foreign labor since World War Two to support their growing economies. But until recently, they granted temporary work permits to migrant workers. It was assumed they would stay for a few years and return to their homeland. Hence the term Gast Arbeiter or guest worker in Germany.
Klaus Larres, a German-born scholar at the Library of Congress, says generally, the German government has been reluctant to grant citizenship to foreign nationals of non-German descent. "Guest workers who, let's say, were born in Turkey and only immigrated to Germany as guest workers on a temporary basis of course had no real blood connection with Germany and therefore they didn't really qualify for citizenship."
As Klaus Larres points out, guest workers were not particularly interested in becoming citizens, either. But as a growing number continued to stay in the host country, they demanded to change their status from a temporary to a permanent one. In the past few years, Germany has granted citizenship to about half a million Turks, still a small number in proportion to several million living there.
During the 1990s, following disintegration of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, millions of economic migrants and political refugees poured into western Europe. Mr. Larres says the sudden influx of people from different cultures, many with poor work skills, worried some Germans, and they demanded a clamp down on immigration. "But I think what was even more important was the perception of many Germans that it really was getting too much,” says Mr. Larres. “Nine percent of the population being of foreign ancestry is not really all that much. A big country should be able to cope with that. But if you would ask the average German - what is the percentage of foreigners living in Germany, I'm sure they would pitch it at 25 to 30 %, that their subjective perception is much, much different to what actually the reality is."
More than three million of Germany's seven and a half million foreign population are Muslims. A growing number of mosques, oriental markets, shops, people dressed in non-western clothes and other signs of foreign cultures have begun to change the face of large cities. Klaus Larres says some Germans welcome the changes as cosmopolitan, while others resent them. "Of course, there is another fact which one should not overlook. That is the fact of skin color. If a white person wants to move to Germany, Britain, France, in general, I think 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."
Some politicians have exploited the prejudices to attract voters: Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, Umberto Bossi in Italy and Joerg Haider in Austria.
Melitta Schubert, Deputy-Chief-of-Mission at the Austrian Embassy in Washington, says they do not have significantly large followings. Mr. Haider, she notes, is losing support in Austria. "If you look at the results of the last election, he went down from 27% to 10%."
Ms. Schubert says Austria historically has had large minorities, such as Slovenes in Corinthia, Croats and Hungarians in Burgerland, and Czechs in Upper and Lower Austria and has exemplary laws protecting their rights. "They can have bi-lingual education. They have also their own schools. We have even in those areas in Corinthia and Burgenland the names of the villages or cities in both languages. Radio broadcasts: for example, in the Slovenian-minority part in Corinthia they now have a 24-hour broadcast in their minority language. It's quite remarkable."
But these are large communities of people that have been part of Austria for a few centuries. The Austrian government encourages newcomers to take German language courses as soon as possible upon their arrival. And it recently toughened its immigration laws to admit only workers with the skills its economy needs. The German government in 2000 introduced the so-called 'German Green Card' for information technology specialists. The program launched by Chancellor Schroder radically streamlined and sped up the process of bringing in non-Europeans, especially Asians, to work as information technology professionals in Germany.
But as legal immigration becomes tougher, illegal immigration seems to grow and with it various social problems. Professor Emilio Viano says prostitution and human trafficking are among the worst ills of illegal immigration, but there are others. "These people are unregistered. These people do not have full access to education, health care, employment and benefits. 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."
The absence of border controls among EU member states facilitates the circulation of crime. Legal immigrants as well as citizens of many European countries demand stronger control over migration, including deportation of illegal immigrants.
On the other hand, population analysts say Europe desperately needs immigrants. Despite what seems like a large influx of people into the European Union, the population across the continent is declining. Fertility rates in most European states have become so low that the continent may lose up to 6% of its population in the next four or five years. The remaining population is getting older and leaving the work force.
Analysts warn European economies may stagnate if they don't replace their declining labor force. Many say EU nations should review their immigration policies and come to grips with the fact that they need immigrants as much as immigrants need them.