Ahto Lobjakas, Radio Free Europe, Sept. 22, 2009
Each summer, European Union countries are overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of migrants struggling to their shores in search of a better life.
Scenes of French authorities evicting would-be immigrants from a makeshift camp near Calais that officials call a den of crime, known as “the jungle,” are highlighting the problem this week.
But it’s a problem that first hit European headlines a decade ago, so it may seem surprising just how little the EU has done to create an effective policy on immigration, asylum, or repatriation.
Now some countries are taking matters into their own hands: Italy has already begun summarily turning back immigrants caught at sea, and it’s raising protests by human rights groups.
Italy, Greece, and other southern EU countries bear the brunt of the wave of arrivals across the Mediterranean Sea from Africa, a passage fraught with danger. Hundreds die each year when their overcrowded and unseaworthy vessels capsize.
Still, more than 37,000 “boat people” arrived in Italy alone last year. This year, the Italian authorities took the unprecedented step of turning back boats with immigrants at sea before they land on shore. The measure has reduced by half the number of illegal immigrants arriving in Italy.
Italian officials deny they’re breaking the law, but the new policy has provoked an outcry from human rights group who say it breaches international obligations by denying immigrants the chance to apply for asylum.
EU regulations stipulate that immigrants must be processed by the country in which they first set foot. That policy angers the southern EU countries that serve as transit routes for migrants bound for richer, northern EU countries. They say governments not directly affected by the Mediterranean migration should pay Italy, Malta, and other southern European countries compensation.
Among long-term proposals is a resettlement scheme for asylum seekers who’ve lodged applications outside the EU.
EU attempts to cooperate with transit and “source” countries in Africa have seen little success. Italy notably failed to get Libya to block what’s now the main southern route into the EU after Frontex cooperation with Tunisia and Mauretania largely closed off a popular route along Africa’s west coast. Turkey, which has a readmission treaty with the EU, often refuses to honor it.
Barrot said on September 21 that the only viable long-term solution for the EU is to start processing would-be immigrants on the “southern shore of the Mediterranean.” But the lack of cooperation inside the EU so far means that’s unlikely to happen any time soon.