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Limited mobility

Mirjam Gehrke / gswOctober 4, 2013

As authorities continue searching for victims of a shipwreck off the coast of Lampedusa, the EU's refugee policy has again come under fire. Some rights groups say there's now way refugees can legally enter the bloc.

Immigrants are seen in a detention center in Kyprinos, in the region of Evros, at the Greek-Turkish borders EPA/NIKOS ARVANITIDIS +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Image: picture alliance / dpa

At 15 years old, Francois Romeo Ntamag left his home country of Cameroon in 2003. He and his older brother wanted to make it to Europe.

"We crossed various African countries until we got to the border between Morocco and Spain," he recalls. By then, two years had passed.

At the border, he and his brother were arrested during a massive refugee surge from residents in the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. Well over 10,000 people attempted to make it over border fences into Spain, using ladders and their bare hands to try and get past the barbed wire. Border guards shot dead 14 people.

"We were deported into the Algerian-Malian desert," says Francois Romeo Ntamag. "Over 1,000 people died there. It was almost a miracle that we made it to the border with Mali."

In late June 2006, he and his brother arrived in Bamako, where he says they lived, slept and begged on the streets.

Spanish police officers are shown walking alongside migrants who just arrived at the coast (c) picture-alliance/dpa
Spanish police officers arrest migrants who arrive at the coastImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Ever since the Schengen Agreement went into effect, which largely removed border controls within the EU, travelers from sub-Saharan Africa require a visa to come to Europe.

"That has catastrophic consequences for societies in West Africa," says Martin Glasenapp of Medico International, a health and human rights NGO. "It used to be that West Africans would work two or three months in France - in the auto industry, for example - before returning to their home countries."

These days, Glasenapp continues, it's nearly impossible for them to come to Europe legally. Aid organizations, like Medico International, estimate the current number of illegal immigrants in Europe at six million.

Dependency or development?

Worldwide, 232 million people are considered migrants, meaning they live permanently or temporarily outside of their home countries with or without a legal visa. Many who work abroad send a large portion of their income back to their families at home. The World Bank estimates that around 302 billion euros ($411 billion) were transferred back home this way in 2012. That is three times as much money as the world's states officially donate for development aid. Generally speaking, the money, once received at home, is invested in food, education, health and housing.

"Retransfers from migrant workers do not support development; instead, they foster dependency," warns the Malaysian women's rights activist Irene Fernandez, who leads the domestic workers' aid organization Tenaganita. "Migrants feel they are forced to leave their homes because they cannot find work. That's an undesirable development of the globalized economy: Companies exploit cheap workers in order to increase their profits."

Several African women are shown, one of whom is holding American currency (c) picture-alliance/Godong
Retransfers from migrant workers are often a key source of income for families back homeImage: picture-alliance/Godong

Fernandez cites the Philippines as an example of this dependency.

"The economy there is based heavily on consumption. There's no economic development through domestic production. The country isn't using its own resources to become economically independent," said Fernandez, who was honored with the Alternative Nobel Prize in 2005 for her efforts to stop the exploitation of migrant laborers.

"Many illegal migrant workers subsist at poverty level and are constantly afraid of being arrested. Their security is not ensured, and they are separated from their families. I would not describe that as development," she continued.

Wealth encourages immigration

Development aid often aims to create opportunities locally for people in order to limit the incentive for them to emigrate.

Two young women clean and do chores outside of a home (c) picture-alliance/Godang
Many migrants work abroad as domestic helpersImage: picture-alliance/Godong

But Martin Glasenapp of Medico International cites the result of an OECD study to argue that the opposite is often true. "When income rises, so does migration. If you have nothing, then you can't leave. If you have a little bit, then you can chip in together and try to get out."

Instead, Glasenapp believes development policy should focus more heavily on unfair economic and trade relationships. "Development policy must contribute to borders being more open."

The EU signed agreements with the Maghreb states - Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Libya - so that the nortt African states would sharpen their border defenses in order to limit the flow of migrants to Europe.

"Morocco and Algeria have become police officers for the EU," criticizes Francois Romeo Ntamag. In Mali's capital, Bamako, he now leads a self-help organization for migrants who have been sent away from Europe or displaced.

"Mali is the only West African country that accepts displaced migrants. If Mali, like Niger, were to refuse to take these people, they would die in the desert," Ntamag says, drawing on his own experience.

He has appealed to Europe to end policies of arresting migrants, calling the practice a violation of Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, arguing for what he thinks is his right to freedom of movement and choice of domicile.