In Europe, calls grow for unified plan on illegal immigration

Thursday, May 30, 2002

LONDON -- Is Europe preparing to haul up the drawbridge?

Across the continent, right-wing parties have surged at the polls by exploiting fears of a rising tide of immigrants and refugees -- and mainstream politicians are echoing their concerns and their rhetoric.

As Britain and France argued over hundreds of illegal migrants attempting to reach England through the Channel Tunnel, Iain Duncan Smith, leader of Britain's opposition Conservatives, said last week that "not one ... should be allowed to set foot in Britain."

Center-left Prime Minister Tony Blair is considering making aid to countries like Somalia, Sri Lanka and Turkey contingent on their promising to take back rejected asylum seekers. And according to newspaper reports citing a leaked government memo, he also is looking at a plan to use warships to intercept boats smuggling illegal immigrants.

"Tony Blair is reacting to election results in Europe," said Peer Baneke, general secretary of the London-based European Council on Refugees and Exiles.

Baneke was referring chiefly to the strong showing by anti-immigrant politicians Jean-Marie Le Pen in France's presidential election, and Pim Fortuyn of the Netherlands. Fortuyn was assassinated ahead of the parliamentary election, but his party still scored enough votes to have a shot at joining the next governing coalition.

Now a growing number of European leaders are saying that to forestall this anti-foreigner surge, they must come up with a tougher joint policy of their own to choke off illegal migration and stop migrants "asylum shopping" for the most generous host country.

After a meeting in London last week, Blair and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar said European nations must work together to strengthen controls of the continent's external borders and crack down on people-smuggling gangs.

"We're not advocating a 'fortress Europe,' but what we are saying is there's got to be some order and some rules brought into the system whereby people come into Europe," Blair said.

EU interior ministers gather in Rome on Thursday in hopes of making a modest start to sorting out their various immigration and asylum rules. Among ideas on the agenda are an EU border police force and use of satellites to track illegal immigrants.

Aided by an international network of people-smugglers, thousands of migrants from countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia try to enter Europe each year. They come by boat, train and truck -- from Africa in overloaded boats across the Strait of Gibraltar to Spain; from Turkey across the Aegean to the Greek islands; over the Adriatic from Albania to Italy.

In March, a shipload of almost 1,000 Kurds landed in Sicily, prompting the government to declare a state of emergency. In June 2000, 58 Chinese were discovered suffocated in a produce truck in the English port of Dover.

According to the U.N. refugee agency, 65,903 people applied for asylum in the 15 EU countries in the first three months of this year.

The European Union is a mostly borderless bloc of 15 nations, and once inside it, travel from one member country to another becomes relatively easy. Countries on the EU periphery such as Turkey are frequently accused of not doing enough to block the waves of migrants, but say they can't do much without EU financial aid.

In 1999, EU leaders agreed to establish common standards for procedures, conditions for reception of asylum-seekers and rules on the recognition of refugee status.

But they shied away from harmonizing regulations or establishing a special fund to assist member states facing an influx of refugees.

Recently, however, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and the newly elected Christian Democrats in the Netherlands have echoed Blair and Aznar in calling for a more coordinated policy.

Critics of a joint system argue that tougher rules would turn the European Union into a "fortress Europe" where many people with valid asylum claims would be turned away.

Refugee advocates say immigrants are being used as scapegoats for social problems. In Italy, members of Berlusconi's conservative governing coalition have linked crime to immigration from eastern Europe, Africa and Asia. Spanish officials have blamed North African immigrants for rising crime rates.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has expressed concern at some policies, like proposed laws in Denmark -- where the anti-immigration Danish People's Party helps prop up a center-right coalition government -- to tighten asylum rules and withhold many social benefits from refugees.

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