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Stuck in a rut

September 2, 2009

A German professor has made a new call for living standards in Africa to be improved in order to stem the flow of illegal immigrants to Europe. Deutsche Welle's Bernd Riegert comments.

graphic of pen and word opinion

The idea that conditions in refugees' countries of origins need to be improved sounds fair and logical when uttered in the virtual world of political declarations. Such ideas are floated in nearly every European Parliament debate and nearly every press conference held by the various EU interior ministers. It's been the same old story for many years. Unfortunately, in the real world, there is hardly any evidence of change.

Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert heads Deutsche Welle's Europe departmentImage: DW

Living conditions in many African countries, but also in Afghanistan, Pakistan or even in Iran are such that every year, tens of thousands of people set off with the aim of reaching the promised shores of Europe.

With immigration pressure only expected to increase, the EU states around the Mediterranean have been strengthening their border posts in order to combat illegal immigration using a combination of deterrence and deportation. It is difficult to determine how many thousands of people have died as a consequence of this hard-line policy.

Pushing the problem elsewhere

Spain, for example, is shutting itself off. The Strait of Gibraltar between Morocco and Spain is controlled using electronic surveillance of maritime traffic. The Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa have been fenced off from Morocco. Illegal immigrants landing on the Canary Islands are being deported more frequently back to their country of origin. This does not solve the problem of illegal immigration to Europe, however; rather, it just relocates it.

Boat full of illegal immigrants from Africa
Boat-loads of illegal immigrants head to Europe every dayImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Refugees and the criminals who smuggle them are constantly searching for new ways into Europe. Currently, many immigrants begin their journey in Libya with the hope of reaching Italy. But ever since the two countries signed a deportation agreement and commenced joint patrols in the Mediterranean, this route is being coming more risky.

Italy has tightened up its immigration laws. The conditions of refugee and deportation camps have been criticized - not just by aid agencies, but also by the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR.

The same goes for Greece, which is the first arrival point in the EU for thousands of refugees travelling overland from Turkey. Illegal immigration over the borders of Poland, Hungary and Slovakia has also been heavily reduced thanks to increased border surveillance. Immigrants are then bypassing these regions and aiming instead for Greece and the Balkan states.

Inability to agree

The European Union cannot consider itself a fortress when one to two million people annually are allowed to immigrate legally to its member states. In comparison, only 240,000 people claimed asylum in the EU. The European Commission in Brussels has been trying for years to develop a uniform definition of "refugees" across the member states and introduce a uniform procedure for asylum applications. But so far, this attempt has been in vain.

The EU member states are refusing to relinquish their independence when it comes to immigration. The southern members are pushing for a relocation policy, which would involve the redistribution of asylum seekers more evenly across the 27 member states. The northern countries, above all Germany and Austria, are blocking the move. They insist that countries such as Spain, Italy, Malta and Greece should deal with the problem themselves.

Attempts to introduce new strategies have failed because of a lack of political will to help each other. This game has been played for many years now, and it isn't expected to change much in the future.

It is not a practical solution to open up borders and allow all migrants to enter the EU. But increased legal immigration is necessary. Because of Europe's aging population, the EU needs approximately 20 million young immigrants by 2030. But the EU interior ministers cannot agree on the criteria and regulations which would make such a move possible. For years, they have not moved forward on the issue, but cannot seem to take a step back either. The EU's immigration policy is stuck in a political rut.

Author: Bernd Riegert (kh)
Editor: Sabina Casagrande