Fortress Europe Fights Immigration

A boat carrying would-be illegal immigrants recovered at sea by the coast guard arrives in port on the Spanish Canary Island of Tenerife. (Photo: Desiree Martin / AFP-Getty Images)

Helicopters, boats, and planes were sent by EU member states to control the Southeast European costal border. But the new anti-immigration operation does not stop there: they work hand in hand with three Senegalese patrol boats and one plane. Their mission is clear: scan the coasts of Mauritania, Senegal, and Cap Verde, intercept "cuyucos," small fishing boats that can carry up to 50 to 70 people, and take their passengers home safe and sound. Operation Hera II conducted by the European border agency Frontex, cost four million euros, 80 percent of which is paid by the EU.

"This operation is mostly a dissuasive tool against immigration," explains the French daily Liberation.

Angél Yuste, the coast guard's coordinator of the operation, admits, "Those who want to reach Europe will always find a way."

Since the beginning of the year, some 25,000 people have reached the Canary Islands illegally. These are the most fortunate. According to estimates, a sixth of cuyuco passengers die, drowning before reaching their destination. How many today rest at the bottom of the ocean? Estimates are that 3.000 to 5.000 people died this year trying to reach Europe from the African coasts.

Playing Russian Roulette

Eight Southern European countries sent their ministers for foreign affairs to Athens on Oct. 12 and Oct. 13. There they discussed a common stance they defended at the meeting of the European Council at Lahti in Finland on Oct. 20. They examined the possible creation of a European force of coast guards to survey borders. It is hoped that member states will be able to reach a common stance on immigration policies.

A Disarray of Laws

To send immigrants home, the Spanish authorities must first identity their countries of origin. This is especially difficult given that many of them do not have ID papers.

"They find it easier to differentiate Moroccans from Algerians, more that the sub-Saharan nationalities," explains José Maria Ruiz Hudobro, a researcher for the University Institute of migration.

Some immigrants claim they come from Sierra Leone or Liberia because they know that Spain never signed an agreement of forced repatriation with those countries. On the Internet, some Web sites give detailed instructions on how to sail to Europe on a cuyuco. If after 40 days authorities have not proceeded to the forced repatriation of the immigrant, he or she can stay as long as they want on Spanish territory. The French are far stricter: entering French territory illegally is considered a crime and can be punished with 6 months in prison. If the police arrest a clandestine worker and can prove that he reached France passing through the Canary Islands, they can send him or her back to Spain.

Shows of Solidarity?

Professor Ruiz Hudobro emphasizes the European dimensions of the problem:

"Member states decided to abolish their interior borders and create a Schengen zone, so logically they should adopt a common stance on immigration issues."

Nevertheless, numerous governments are reluctant to give Brussels the right to legislate on questions of immigration, "especially because border patrol and immigration control are the clearest demonstrations of the national sovereignty of states."

"Today, short-term visa procedures are the same everywhere but work permit regulations still need harmonizing," said Hudobro. "And at present, these procedures can only be modified unanimously, so majority decision making on such an issue would be a step in the right direction. But not only is it difficult to obtain a consensus, but it is also difficult to implement these decisions swiftly."

The Roots of the Problem

The difference in income per inhabitant, the political instability in sub-Saharan Africa, and the absence of future perspectives are a few of the reasons that compel Africans to leave their countries and risk their lives to reach Europe.

"But Europe has declared a war on immigrants," said Claire Rodier, president of the association Migreurop.

"These last years, Europe has limited itself to the implementation of Frontex," he added.

According to Rodier, these measures are "inefficient, expensive, dangerous and inhuman."

The clandestine workers killed by Moroccan police in Ceuta and Melilla in September 2005, the hundreds of deported citizens in the Sahara desert, or the toxic waste left in Abidjan are some examples of European irresponsibility.

"We should help them leave or create decent living conditions so that they stay in their own country," concludes Rodier.

Thus, French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy recently promised 2.5 million euros to Senegal only if the authorities "accepted and organized the repatriation of clandestine workers who had arrived in Europe." Ruiz Hudobro criticizes this strategy and deems that it is unilateral and insufficient:

"On the one hand, the control of these funds is inadequate. African countries also have other priorities and more urgent matters than the fight against clandestine immigration."

Free Way

Migreurop promotes the free movement of people and considers that the 25,000 foreign workers who passed through the Canary Islands can contribute to an aging Europe. On the other hand, professor Hudobro believes that this discourse of "work permits for everyone" absurd. The professor defends the principle that immigration candidates should line up to enter the EU.

"To prevent human trafficking, we must create consulates, queues, and promise immigrants that if they are patient enough they will be able to obtain the appropriate papers," he says.

A Marshall Plan for Africa

But maybe Europe should at last accept the responsibility it has toward its old colonies. N.G.O.'s encourage governments to allocate funds to development, instead of "wasting money patrolling our borders," states Rodier. Others such as Hudobro suggest that the EU should eliminate subventions for EU agriculture for example, so that southern farmers may at last sell their produce in Northern markets. Unfortunately, heads of states and governments were more willing to discuss boats and planes more than customs fees at their meeting in Lahti.