Immigration issue grips Europe

EU leaders meet in Spain Friday to strengthen the Continent's immigration laws.

Europe's leaders will seek this weekend to seize back the political initiative from burgeoning far-right parties by agreeing on tough new measures to keep illegal immigrants out of the Continent.

But their plans could lay the foundations for a "Fortress Europe" that ignores governments' pledges to shelter genuine asylum-seekers, human rights groups are warning.

"If we want to defeat xenophobic and reactionary attitudes, we must take citizens' problems and fears seriously," Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar told a meeting of German Christian Democrats earlier this week.

Mr. Aznar will be chairing the European Union summit of heads of state that begins Friday in Seville, Spain, and he has put illegal immigration at the top of the agenda.

That has drawn the ire of critics such as Amnesty International.

"Fear appears the driving force" behind the EU's new focus on immigration, the human rights group said in an open letter to the summit this week.

"In the current climate of fear and suspicion, the balance seems to be swinging even further to the point where human rights, and in particular the right to asylum, may be sacrificed," Amnesty warned.

Five hundred thousand people a year enter Western Europe illegally, according to EU figures. With citizens edgy in the wake of Sept. 11, anti-immigrant parties have capitalized on the mood to win unprecedented prominence.

In France, extreme right-wing leader Jean-Marie Le Pen stunned the political elite by taking second place in the first round of presidential elections last April. In Holland, Pim Fortuyn's party came second in parliamentary elections last month, largely on the strength of the slain politician's slogan that the country was "full up."

Antiforeigner parties have made their way into ruling coalitions in Italy, Austria, Norway, and Portugal.

Especially controversial at the EU summit is an Anglo-Spanish proposal to cut aid to developing countries that do not cooperate with EU members by taking back those citizens who are denied asylum in Europe.

That would be to put the cart before the horse, Swedish foreign minister Anna Lindh argued, after meeting her EU counterparts last Monday. "It is very important to have a partnership with thirdcountries to help them fight the reasons behind the influx of immigrants," she told reporters. "Threatening them is not the right way."

The idea has also come under fire from experts at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). "We need to take steps to keep people as close to home as possible," argues UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond. "It is irrational to spend money on detention centers and border controls in Europe without simultaneously focusing on the problems at their source."

The summit will also study nascent plans for a unified European border-guard force, which would patrol Europe's southern and eastern borders more tightly.

Although ideas such as the British suggestion that Royal Navy vessels patrol the straits of Gibraltar attract a lot of attention, migration experts say such ideas aren't much of a solution.

Most illegal immigrants in Europe do not arrive bedraggled on the beach, struggling from rusty boats, as the popular imagination would have it. Instead they arrive by plane or bus, quite legally, with tourist visas that they then overstay.

More visible, however, are the desperate asylum seekers, like the 1,300 refugees – mostly from Afghanistan and Iraq – sheltering in Sangatte, near Calais in northern France, while they wait for their nightly chance to hop a train through the Channel tunnel to England.

In fact, the number of foreigners seeking political asylum in the EU last year was 384,530 – well down from the peak in 1992, when the war in Bosnia and Croatia pushed 675,460 people to seek shelter in Western Europe. Last year's figure was only marginally higher than the annual average over the past decade, according to UNHCR statistics.

That fact would not be obvious by reading many of the European papers or listening to politicians. And the debate has spurred a number of countries to toughen up their laws on foreigners. In Denmark, for example, a three-week-old law gives only long-term residents full welfare payments. Newcomers will have to wait seven years before they are entitled to normal unemployment benefits.

In Britain, the government recently announced it will open three camps in remote rural areas to house asylum applicants, and has suggested that their children should be educated in separate schools.

In Italy, a draft law aims to expel more illegal immigrants when they are caught, ensures that legal immigrants have a job contract before they leave home, and requires that all non-EU immigrants – Americans included – be fingerprinted on arrival.

Often lost in all the uproar is the fact that Europe needs immigrants to ensure its economic growth and to fund the pension systems in countries where aging and shrinking populations cannot sustain them.

"[Immigration] is a fountain of vitality and energy that is indispensable for a Europe that's aging," said European Commission president Romano Prodi earlier this week.

And Italian businessmen have been trying to water down Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's toughnew legislation, fearing that it might dry up a valuable source of labor in a country where Indians and Pakistanis now do jobs such as cow herding.

In the long term, European officials say, the goal is for the 15 EU countries to harmonize their rules on asylum and on legal channels of immigration, so as to reduce the human traffickers' scope for action.

In the current atmosphere, however, it seems more likely that they will concentrate on clamping down, to show voters that they are doing something.

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