Tuesday,21 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1180, (16-22 January 2014)
Tuesday,21 August, 2018
Issue 1180, (16-22 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Fortress Europe

The deaths of more than 300 migrants hoping to enter the European Union late last year have drawn renewed attention to Europe’s policy on illegal immigration, writes David Tresilian in Paris

Al-Ahram Weekly

The death by drowning of more than 300 African and North African migrants off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa in early October last year once again drew international attention to the growing numbers of illegal immigrants hoping to make the journey northwards across the Mediterranean to the countries of the European Union.

While for this group of migrants this was a hope that went tragically wrong, for others the central Mediterranean route to Lampedusa, or other routes in the eastern and western Mediterranean, have led them to European shores and the hope of a better life than they could enjoy at home.

Such migrants, drawn from a number of African, North African, Middle Eastern and Asian countries, may be fleeing war or poverty at home or they may be undertaking the sometimes perilous journey to Europe in search of employment and other opportunities unavailable to them in their countries of origin.

However, whatever their motivation, and whatever the cries of shame among EU officials at this latest set of deaths may be, it seems unlikely that the flow of illegal immigrants into European countries will be stemmed by the Lampedusa tragedy. In fact, as numerous commentators have been swift to point out it will have been all too familiar to citizens of European countries who have long become used to similar tragedies occurring on the borders of the European Union.

What really characterised European reaction to the latest tragedy, as the UK news magazine The Economist put it in an editorial on 12 October, was the extent of Europe’s contradictions over illegal immigration. As divers pulled the bodies of the dead from the fishing boat carrying the migrants that had capsized off the Italian island, the magazine said, “the confusion of Europe’s migration and asylum policies,” or rather their hypocrisy, became evident.

“‘We cannot accept that thousands of people die on Europe’s borders,’ declared Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, who visited Lampedusa to show solidarity… The Italian government called a day of mourning, gave honorary citizenship to the dead and promised a state funeral. At the same time prosecutors opened a criminal investigation into the survivors,” seeking to fine them for attempted clandestine immigration.

AFTER THE ARAB SPRING: While the issue of illegal immigration into Europe has been discussed for years, media interest in it perhaps reached its height, and with it the interest of Europe’s politicians, in the years after the Arab Spring.

The economic crisis that has hit many European countries hard since the 2008 financial crisis has perhaps also had the effect of drawing public attention to the issue of immigration into Europe, legal or illegal, as far-right parties across the continent gain ground in the opinion polls, at least in part as a result of their attacks on immigration.

However, while the Lampedusa tragedy and others like it have once again drawn attention to the migrants desperately trying to enter Europe by overladen fishing boats crossing the Mediterranean or hidden in lorries or containers as they attempt to enter via land routes, the vast majority of illegal immigrants enter the continent in the same way as they have done for years — by overstaying their visas.

According to Frontex, the EU’s border agency, whose activities received much scrutiny in the wake of last year’s tragedy, the vast majority of illegal immigrants in EU countries are “illegal stayers”, in other words third-party nationals many of whom entered the EU legally but then overstayed the period of their visas or other residence documents. The agency’s 2012 figures show that some 350,000 such people were detected by EU member state authorities over the course of that year, leaving open the possibility that the real figure was in fact far higher.

Many of these illegal stayers were from Arab countries, notably Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Syria, these making up nearly 20 per cent of the total, with the highest number of illegal stayers being detected from Afghanistan. According to Frontex figures, the trend for the detection of such illegal stayers in EU countries has been declining steadily since 2009, when 412,000 were detected.

It seems that while the international media has been focusing on migrants making illegal border crossings into EU countries, the majority of people residing illegally in the EU arrived by plane with a valid visa and then simply stayed on after that visa had expired. Nevertheless, at least 73,000 people illegally entered the EU via land or sea routes in 2012, though of course as this number refers only to detections the true figure may be higher.

In its 2012 data, Frontex says that the 73,000 figure, half that recorded for 2011, was the first for which the number of recorded detections of illegal migrants at EU borders had fallen below 100,000 since 2008 when systematic records began. A look at the figures also reveals that while 10,379 people were apprehended by European border authorities attempting to make the crossing into Europe via the central Mediterranean route in 2012, the one associated with the Lampedusa tragedy, this was less than a third of those using the eastern Mediterranean route into the EU via Greece, Bulgaria and Cyprus.

However, though the figures as a whole indicate that the eastern Mediterranean route, whether by land or sea, has long been the most important of all those used by illegal migrants into the EU, dwarfing the central Mediterranean, western Mediterranean and western Balkans routes for all years covered, the upheaval in North Africa and the Middle East associated with the revolutions of the Arab Spring does seem to have had significant ramifications on illegal immigration into Europe.

In 2010, 650 Tunisian nationals were apprehended attempting to use the central Mediterranean route to enter the EU. In 2011, that figure rose to 27,964. There was no similar rise in the number of illegal migrants from Algeria or Morocco. In 2011, 1,292 Syrian nationals were apprehended attempting to enter the EU using the eastern Mediterranean route. In 2012, that figure rose to 7,122.

Although Frontex does not spell this out the essential difference between 2010 and 2011, in the Tunisian case, and 2011 and 2012, in the Syrian one, is likely to have been the disruption caused by the revolution in Tunisia and the war in Syria, though the breakdown of efficient border patrols by the Tunisian and Syrian authorities may also have been a contributing factor. This suggests that these migrants were fleeing chaos and disruption at home and were not necessarily only seeking better lives in Europe, though of course the disorder caused by the revolutions or civil conflict has also had significant economic consequences.

According to Frontex’s latest figures, for the second quarter of 2013, there has been a significant growth in the number of migrants taking the central Mediterranean route, linked to the lack of efficient border controls in Libya. Most of these migrants have been of Eritrean or Somali nationalities, though there have also been a number of Egyptians, with several hundred Egyptian nationals being apprehended throughout 2012 and 2013, rising from zero a few years earlier.

In the eastern Mediterranean, increasing numbers of Syrians have been attempting to enter the EU illegally, often taking the Apulia-Calabria route into Italy after departing from the Egyptian port of Alexandria. According to Frontex’s second quarter of 2013 report, a new modus operandi has been developing since 2012, with Egyptian facilitators using fishing boats from Alexandria to transport third-country nationals to Crete and from Crete to Italy. However, the number of Egyptians apprehended in Italy after making this journey also reached record numbers in 2013 (353), as it did for Egyptian nationals making the journey to Italy using the central Mediterranean route (411).

WAIT UNTIL YOU GET THERE: On arriving on EU soil migrants who have illegally crossed European borders have much the same sort of choices as those who have crossed them legally on valid visas or other documents but have then overstayed them. Either they can join the ranks of undocumented immigrants — in French sans papiers — perhaps eventually hoping to be legalised, or they can claim asylum as political refugees or asylum seekers.

The former choice is not attractive since in addition to breaking the law of the country they are in and therefore potentially risking legal sanction undocumented immigrants also run the risk of exploitation and typically do not benefit from legal or social security protection. While the evidence suggests that undocumented immigrants often make use of informal networks set up by compatriots and others already in the country, using these to meet their housing, healthcare and employment needs, this does not prevent them from being exploited by unscrupulous landlords or employers.

Social housing, already unavailable to all but the neediest categories in many European countries, is not available to those unable to show they have legal residency, and the private rental market can be particularly brutal towards undocumented immigrants. Knowing that their tenants, if in the country illegally, can have no recourse against abuse or exploitative practices, private landlords charge exorbitant rents in slum-like housing to undocumented immigrants.

Since social welfare payments, such as the housing and child allowances that allow many families to survive in many Europe countries, are also not available to undocumented immigrants, these can also be hit hard by the double whammy of having both to pay more for their accommodation than other members of the population and of not being able to claim any of the transfer payments that make high rents even moderately affordable to the rest of the population.

In the same way, in most European countries the formal labour market is rigorously controlled and those employers who operate outside of it usually do so in order to reduce costs. While the informal labour market does not have to be exploitative, since employers ready to employ people en noir are already making considerable savings on social security and other payments, in reality there is no reason why such employers should be scrupulous about observing statutory overtime rates, holiday pay or sickness benefits since they are already breaking the law by employing, or not declaring, illegal immigrants.

Despite the obvious difficulties and uncertainties of this situation, many hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants are believed to live this way in many European countries, their individual circumstances being better or worse depending on their individual networks and the specific features of different situations.

However, even those living under tolerable circumstances are obviously unable to travel outside of their country of residence, and in continental European countries where national identity cards are demanded for everything from attending an evening class to going to a doctor undocumented immigrants can find their life perspectives radically attenuated.

In the UK, recent changes to the country’s immigration rules have meant that established pathways to legal residence have been tightened up for undocumented immigrants. Before July 2012, such immigrants could apply for indefinite leave to remain if they had been living in the country for 14 years or more, even if illegally, but this has now been raised to 20 years and assistance with legal representation scrapped.

A government-led campaign to make the UK a “hostile environment” for undocumented immigrants in the belief that this will reduce the so-called “pull factors” making such people want to stay in the country has already led to a tightening of immigration rules and legal aid for undocumented immigrants, along with proposals to make doctors, schoolteachers, landlords, employers and others check up on individual residence status.

If passed, these proposals will likely result in an even greater reluctance among those not enjoying regular legal status to interact with mainstream structures and will increase their vulnerability to exploitation, forced labour or criminal activities.

In France, where life for undocumented immigrants has tended to be particularly hard owing to the reach of the country’s bureaucracy, demands for the regularisation of undocumented immigrants, or sans papiers, have led to repeated public protests, sometimes escalating into hunger strikes among those concerned. Between 200,000 and 400,000 sans papiers are believed to live and work in France, none of them enjoying the kinds of social security benefits and legal protections that are taken for granted by French and European citizens.

Like in the UK, the vast majority of these people, perhaps up to 90 per cent of them, arrived in the country legally but then stayed on following the expiry of their visas or other documents. Routes to legalisation include living and working in France for extended periods, even if illegally, family or personal reasons, or reasons related to human rights, notably as a result of sickness or the possibility of persecution at home. However, also like in the UK, the French immigration rules are notoriously complex, and the fact that they are administered by local agencies (the préfectures) can make them even more capricious.

It has not been unknown for individuals to be arrested for illegal residence while making applications at government offices to legalise their situations, thereby risking possible detention and deportation.

FUTURE PERSPECTIVES: In the wake of last year’s Lampedusa tragedy the European Union came under pressure to rethink its immigration policies, and there was talk not only of extending the work of Frontex, the EU’s common border agency, but also of mounting regular “rescue missions” in the Mediterranean of boatloads of migrants leaving North Africa for Europe.

Newspapers across the continent were full of articles on the subject, at least until the shock of the Lampedusa drownings died down, but there was little sign of any European country wanting to do more to assist undocumented immigrants gain legal residency. In fact, as developments in the UK have illustrated, many European countries are tightening up their immigration rules, hoping to make their societies even more “hostile environments” for undocumented immigrants.

Meanwhile, as The Economist pointed out in its leader on the subject last October, the boats coming to Europe across the Mediterranean “carry human cargoes of refugees fleeing wars and persecution and migrants escaping economic misery. Even if it could be done safely, these boats cannot be pushed back.” As a result, the magazine said, the best way of handling the problem would be to do more to tackle the causes of illegal immigration by giving greater economic assistance to spur development in poorer countries, helping these to give greater perspectives to those who might otherwise be tempted to make the sometimes perilous journey to Europe.

How likely is this to happen? For the time being, the populist media in the UK and some other European countries has been presenting all undocumented immigrants as potential “benefits scroungers”, attracted to Europe by the prospect of welfare payments and not genuinely wanting to make a better life for themselves or escaping conflict or persecution at home. Even usually more liberal Germany announced late last year that it intended to give asylum to just five thousand Syrian refugees, for example, despite the chaos that has overwhelmed Syria over the last three years, making migration, for many, a matter of life or death.

Writing in the French newspaper Le Monde in November, French expert on migration Catherine Wihtol de Wenden said that the historically very high rates of youth unemployment in the countries of the southern Mediterranean, together with frustration at the few opportunities such societies seemed to be able to offer their young people, could only mean that pressures to leave for Europe would continue.

While the Arab Spring had not in itself led to greater pressures to emigrate, she said, it had led to changes in the ways in which border controls were conducted, meaning that in Tunisia and Libya in particular “there was less zeal on the part of the new regimes” to prevent illegal emigration to Europe.

“The people who leave come from countries where the median age is 25 and where the population as a whole is more and more educated and urbanised. But there is no work and no faith in the future, even in those countries that are not affected by extremely high rates of poverty… In Morocco, more than 50 per cent of all young people want to leave,” such is the ambient sense of frustration.

Given this situation, and the seeming inability of the neo-liberal economic orthodoxy in place in Europe and other parts of the world to change it, it may be that more tragedies of the type seen last year at Lampedusa are inevitable.

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