The European Union sat down with representatives from 27 African countries this week to enlist their help in a new effort to curb the flood of illegal immigration.
The Spanish Coast Guard frequently intercepts illegal immigrants from Africa
The joint EU-Africa conference on Tuesday, Nov. 25 was meant to underscore a partnership between the two continents. But African governments view the shift in EU policy with trepidation, concerned that a "Fortress Europe" is toughening its stance on immigration, as African nations struggle with food and environmental crises, as well as the global economic downturn.
The meeting follows an agreement by EU leaders last month to adopt new immigration rules, which seek to tailor policies to meet the bloc's labor needs, while slapping additional restrictions on illegal residents.
"Neither bunker nor sieve"
African immigrants seeking a better life arrive almost daily in Europe
In an effort to ease those concerns, French Immigration Minister Brice Hortefeux reassured his African counterparts at the meeting in Paris, saying "a policy on migration cannot be defined without or against Africa, but rather with Africa."
"The objective of the European pact," Hortefeux said, "is to avoid a Europe that is a bunker or a sieve."
The ministers are expected to adopt a cooperation program for the next three years to step up the fight against illegal immigration and also look at development programs to create work opportunities for Africans at home.
Morocco's Foreign Minister Taieb Fassi Fihri called on Europeans to be "realistic," arguing that tough immigration laws would not discourage migrants from trying to reach Europe.
Alain Bedouma Yoda, the foreign minister of Burkina Faso, said more development projects were needed to bolster prospects at home, while easing entry regulations to combat human trafficking.
NGOs call EU pact "too repressive"
A growing number of African immigrants now have German citizenship
In the run-up to the meeting, a coalition of 300 non-governmental organizations called "Bridges, not Walls" denounced the EU's new immigration stance as "essentially security-driven and self-serving."
Rights groups charged that the new pact is repressive and puts too much emphasis on regulating immigration flows to allow more skilled workers and fewer refugees.
Echoing those concerns, Morocco's Foreign Minister Fihri was quoted as saying that "Europe most certainly should not be a sieve, but it should recognize that in the coming years it is going to need 30 million immigrants from non-EU states -- with and without qualifications."
A recent report by the French office of statistics, INSEE, said that immigrants make up about ten percent of the labor force in Europe. The report found that immigrants remain vital for Europe's labor market and provide at least part of the solution to the problem of the continent's aging workforce.