Europe′s Invisible Walls | Europe | News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 16.07.2004

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Europe's Invisible Walls

Illegal immigrants attempt to cross the Mediterranean sea at a higher risk than ever before. High-tech surveillance systems leave them no choice but to take far more dangerous routes.

A police officer watching over the straits of Gibraltar

A police officer watching over the straits of Gibraltar

Four weeks ago, the German aid organization Cap Anamur found 37 Africans drifting on open waters in a small dinghy. In the meantime, the organization has shipped the refugees to Italy where they've been taken into custody.

A great deal of journalists and some of the most important Italian and German government authorities are currently caught up in the case. However, the attention surrounding the story will fade away sooner or later, the media will lose interest and the politicians will eventually calm down.

Wieder illegale Einwanderer vor Spanien aufgegriffen

A group of illegal immigrants in Spain.

But immigrants will not give up attempting to cross the Mediterranean sea. Just one week ago, 39 Moroccans tried to bridge over 200 kilometers in order to reach the Canary Island of Fuerteventura.

This route is considered to be particularly dangerous due to very unpredictable sea conditions. The refugees barely have a chance of passing through undetected. Two years ago, the Canary Islands established a high-tech surveillance system that can even detect an air bed on the ocean's surface.

Immigrants forced into dangerous routes

A new surveillance system, Sive (Integrated External Vigilance System), scans coastal areas for illegal immigrants using high resolution infrared cameras as well as radar systems in patrol boats and helicopters.

In 2002, Sive was installed at the straits of Gibraltar where only 14 kilometers lie between Africa and Europe. It turned out that the system was highly efficient in Spain -- awakening US interest in Sive for the war against terror.

Because of Sive, the number of refugee boats has decreased by half. Sive can also help to locate ships much faster than before, which can be life-saving for people in need of rescue.

Still, non-government organizations such as "Andalucía Acoge," which looks after illegal immigrants, oppose the system since refugees now choose more dangerous routes in order to bypass surveillance systems.

Bulk-heading, the only solution

The German human rights organization Pro Asyl estimates that, in the last few years alone, around 5,000 people have drowned in the Mediterranean sea. "The only possible solution concerning the refugee problem is to seal Europe off," said Karl Kopp of Pro Asyl.

At the EU summit in Thessaloniki in June 2003, the securing of Europe's borders became a top priority. The heads of state decided to strengthen border patrol by investing a sum of €400 million. Kopp criticizes the continued spending to upgrade Europe's borders when little is done at the source of the problem.

"The refugees should already be caught in African harbors," Kopp said. According to Kopp, Italy has equipped some African countries with the necessary means to patrol their borders, with the result that the number of larger refugee boats has been reduced. But these measures have also resulted in greater numbers of refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean in smaller, less detectible boats.

EU expansion

Belorussisch-polnische Grenze Illegale Einwanderer Grenzpatroulie

Belarusian border guards detain two people suspected of being Indian citizens who were crossing the Belarusian-Polish border illegally.

Since EU expansion, Germany has moved to the center of the bloc. The new eastern EU members are now under pressure to improve their patrols on the EU's new external borders.

Pro Asyl fears that the eastern states aren't capable of dealing with the expected wave of immigrants and would to seal themselves off as a result. This kind of behavior would lead to the establishment of refugee camps along the borders of these countries, says Kopp.

Such a development has already occurred in Ukraine. One of the most notorious camps, Payshino, is located on the country's western border. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, hundreds of illegal immigrants are being held in the camp under inhumane conditions.

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