With every new influx of refugees from Africa, the EU is under increased pressure. Help in containing the problem seems to follow swiftly, but mostly in the form of funding for increased policing and border security.
African refugees now seek out Spain's Canary Islands
Following the recent flood of African refugees from Mauritania trying to reach the Canary Islands, the issue of illegal immigration is once again at the top of the EU's agenda. EU interior ministers meeting at the German Baltic Sea resort of Heiligendamm starting Wednesday will be discussing it, and at the request of the Spanish government, the topic has also been included in the upcoming spring summit of EU heads of state.
A solution to the daily drama being played out at the gates to Europe is unlikely to come from either meeting.
"The EU doesn't have an answer about how to stop the deaths occurring at its outermost borders," said Karl Kopp of the human rights organization, Proasyl. "Instead, the strict surveillance of the borders has meant that more people are choosing longer and more difficult routes, resulting in more deaths."
African immigrants at a holding facility in the Spanish enclave of Melilla
For many years, illegal immigrants have tried to reach Spain by crossing the Straits of Gibraltar in flimsy boats. Now, only few still attempt this route, as the Spanish police have installed a high-tech surveillance system known as SIVE, funded with EU money. Night vision cameras and radar devices capable of detecting an object as small as a football floating up to 20 kilometers out at sea have been positioned at strategic spots along Spain's southern coast. Spain and the EU plan to invest a further 130 million euros ($157 million) in the system over the next four years.
Rather than attempt a crossing at the straits, the majority of refugees are opting to try their luck via the Spain's North African enclaves, Ceuta and Melilla. Many Africans have died attempting to get over the barbed wire fences there and pictures of failed attempts have gone around the world. The border has since been reinforced. The fence is now six meters high in places and a barrier is to be extended out into the sea.
Since the start of the year, the main route for refugees from Mauritania has been over the open sea to the Canary Islands. In total, 3,500 Africans have already landed there in their boats. But many didn't make it. According to information from the Spanish police, between 1,200 and 1,700 Africans drowned off the Spanish coast in November and December alone, though the number of undocumented deaths is likely much higher.
Less money for repressive measures
The EU's reaction to the refugee drama has now taken on aspects of a ritual, says Proasyl's Kopp.
Workers fix razor wire to a fence in Melilla
"Everyone is always shocked about the corpses washing up on tourist beaches," he said. "Delegations are then sent to Mauritania, where they discuss upping border controls and creating more capacity to take on refugees."
The Spanish government dispatched patrol boats and earmarked 7.5 million euros for emergency treatment. Spanish engineers are now also supposed to build a refugee center.
EU parliamentarians such as Social Democrat Wolfgang Kreissl-Dörfler criticize the EU for spending too much money on police and border security.
"At the moment, everyone is far too fixated on repressive measures," he said, adding that the EU should finally focus on passing a common policy on illegal immigration.
"As long as conditions in the immigrants' countries of origin don't improve, the stream of refugees will not abate," Kreissl-Dörfler said.
Ewa Klamt of the European parliament's conservative Christian Democrat faction agreed.
"We are still investing too little in local aid," she said. "We should remember that every refugee that lands on our doorstep costs far more money than what we would invest in that person's country of origin."
Where's the money going?
Both parliamentarians agree however, on the need to continue providing financial support to transit countries such as Morocco and Libya. But there needs to be some insurance that the money is put to good use.
Immigrants outside a temporary immigration centre in Melilla
"Immigration has become big business, and it's an open secret that even high-level military personnel have gotten wrapped up in human trafficking," said Kreissl-Dörfler, who like Klamt, visited Ceuta and Melilla in December. He had to concede however, that keeping track of how the money is used is difficult.
"It's the EU Commission's responsibility to look into this further," he said.
Above all, the EU has to ensure that illegal immigrants are treated humanely, the MEP said. Right now, that's wishful thinking. Take Morocco as an example: Jose Palazon from the Spanish NGO Prodein has been looking after illegal immigrants in Melilla for years, and reports that Moroccan security officials routinely use violence on the Africans camping in the woods outside Melilla.
"They've forbidden the local population from giving the migrants food and water," Palazon said. "Morocco's not putting a single a cent towards the care of these migrants."
After the flood of migrants to the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, the EU promised Morocco 40 million euros in aid, mostly for police and border security. According to Klamt, the money has not yet been transferred. It seems the conditions for its use were not clear. "It's important to be practical when dealing with Morocco," Klamt said. "If we can find a good way to provide help in Morocco, then we have reason to hope that other countries such as Algeria will follow this example."