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Destination Europe

October 3, 2009

German aid workers are on trial in Sicily for rescuing African refugees after their boat sank in the Mediterranean five years ago. The trial has raised questions about how Europe deals with illegal immigration.

Memorial on Lampedusa
A memorial to refugees who died on their journey on the Italian island of LampedusaImage: DW

Italian prosecutors argue the aid workers were trafficking illegal immigrants, an offense that is punishable with up to four years in prison. A Tunisian fisherman is also being tried for people trafficking.

While the trial in Sicily shines a spotlight on past incidents involving illegal immigration, Europe still hasn't worked out how to treat and deal with people who risk their lives trying to reach the continent. Just two weeks ago fifty Africans drowned in the Straight of Gibraltar while heading for Spain. Their small boat sank off the Moroccan coast, only eleven people survived. A few days earlier border police rescued six African children in a rubber boat off the Spanish coast.

Still, in the first six months of the year the number of illegal migrants trying to reach Europe by sea dropped dramatically to 15,700 compared to 67,000 in the first half of 2008. The steep decline is due to a new agreement between Italy and Libya, says the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). It allows the Italian navy to return migrants, picked up in international waters, without giving them the opportunity to apply for asylum first.

On the route between between Africa and the Canary Islands, which belong to Spain, Europe's border patrol agency Frontex, has registered fewer immigrants as well, says its spokesman Michal Parzyszek: "The flow of detected illegal migrants to the Canary Islands has decreased during the last two years. Last year there was a decrease between 15 and 20 percent compared to 2007,” he says.

Better life

Immigrants protesting in Lampedusa
Immigrants staged a protest in Lampedusa earlier this yearImage: picture-alliance / dpa

But despite efforts to combat illegal immigration and the current downward trend, Rupert Neudeck from the German aid organisation Green Helmets doesn't expect this to continue. He estimates that 18 million mainly young Africans are ready to leave the continent for better living conditions abroad. Most of them want to make it to Europe one day.

Neudeck is an expert on the issue. Already in the 1970s he rescued boat people, as Vietnamese refugees were called then. But the current situation in Africa is totally different. “We cannot compare it with the Vietnamese boat people, because they were persecuted," he says. "They were political refugees. They had a legal title by the UNHCR. African boat people today are going abroad for better job opportunities, a better standard of living, a perspective. They are just as legal, but they don't have this internationally recognised title. That's a big difference.”

Lack of European policy

For Neudeck, migration is a human right that allows a person to leave one's country in search of a better living conditions elsewhere. "Our forefathers went to America, which was considered to be legal. It is important to know that the aim for better conditions has nothing to do with illegality. The other question is whether our policy in Europe is allowing some of these people to enter and to work.”

Currently, however, the twenty seven European Union member states don't even have a common migration policy, but fifty African nations to talk to. “We haven't even come to the conclusion yet that we have to establish a partnership with these countries", says Neudeck and adds: "We are restricting ourselves to sealing off our borders and building a big task force of policemen to defend ourselves. This is not a policy, it is the opposite of a policy. It shows that we haven't understood our challenge yet."

Frontex spokesman Parzyszek admits that the migration issue needs to be coordinated across the EU. “Certainly we need migration policy at the European level, which covers the whole range of issues. There are always fingers pointing at Frontex. But Frontex is just about border control. This is just a tiny part of migration policy.”

Offering opportunities

Neudeck is convinced that the migration issue can't be solved by border patrols and courts, but that its root causes need to be adressed. He believes that the large majority of African migrants coming to Europe would prefer to live in their own countries. “But they have no proper means to do this,” he says. “So young people are being sent out of their country in order to achieve some kind of wealth and perspective for themselves and for their families staying behind.”

Italian coast guard boat with rescued migrants off Lampedusa
Italian coast guard boat with rescued African migrantsImage: AP

That's why Neudeck and his organisation Green Helmets urge to create more opportunities where they are really needed and before would-be migrants even leave for Europe: “In the main harbors in West Africa we should establish more vocational training centers for youngsters and grant them micro credits to start a business at home,” he says. ”We have done this in Mauretania, where many small boats depart on a risky five, six day journey to the Canary Islands.”

A two-pronged approach therefore is required to effectively deal with migration, says Neudeck: “Giving young people the possibility to work in their own countries is as necessary as to recognise the right of people out on the ocean to be rescued and to stay in Europe for a period of time at least.”

Author: Patrick Vanhulle

Editor: Michael Knigge

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