Britain wants a wider moat around 'fortress Europe'

Home secretary proposes changes on asylum at EU summit in Sweden today.

The British government is redoubling efforts to slam shut the floodgates on illegal immigration to Western Europe.

At an informal summit of the 15-member European Union in Stockholm, British Home Secretary Jack Straw today is reiterating plans to stem the perceived tidal wave of migrants, including an overhaul of the United Nations Convention on Refugees. Yesterday, he called for better coordinating "the very complicated and contradictory practices of the different EU nations."

The challenge, say critics, will be to streamline the asylum process and eliminate loopholes, while keeping the doors open to those fleeing genuine persecution.

In what British Prime Minister Tony Blair has called the "world's fastest-growing criminal business," hundreds of thousands of destitute people seeking a better life in Europe are smuggled in from around the globe. Last weekend, Mr. Blair announced joint measures with Italy to combat human trafficking that transits the Balkans. Then, Mr. Straw presented a plan that aims to put people smugglers out of business.

Britain was largely spared the first wave of migrants that swept countries such as Germany following the collapse of communism in Europe a decade ago, and the wars that accompanied the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. But in the past three years, the number of applications for political asylum here has more than doubled, to 76,000 in 2000. Tens of thousands of cases are backlogged in an administrative system ill-prepared for the influx.

The horror of human trafficking made headlines here last summer, when authorities in Dover, England discovered the bodies of 58 illegal immigrants from China who had suffocated in the back of a cargo truck.

In a speech Tuesday, Straw proposed overhauling the 1951 Geneva Convention to redefine refugee status. "Would-be migrants are taking advantage of one aspect of the convention: Namely that it places an obligation on states to consider any application for asylum made on their territory, however ill-founded." As a solution, he proposed putting nations of origin into three categories: "safe" countries, such as the US, from which no asylum applications would be considered. Asylum seekers from a second group, which could include China, would have to apply from transit countries outside the EU. Only those from a third group, with internationally recognized repressive regimes, could submit applications in an EU country.

Refugee advocates and political opponents of the Labour government have reacted with skepticism. "How we'll judge it, is if people who arrive spontaneously are [still] given the opportunity to seek asylum," says Jean Candler of the British Refugee Council.

Stephen Castles, director of the Refugee Studies Center at Oxford University, in England, says existing high barriers to legal immigration are the very reason that people smuggling has become a lucrative trade. "The tighter the laws, the more illegal activity actually goes on."

The Blair government, expected to call national elections in May, risks accusations that it is heating up an already volatile issue in a bid for votes. But across Europe, questions about acceptable levels of immigration are at the top of the political agenda, and London has been pushing for greater EU cooperation for some time.

In 1997, Britain implemented the Dublin Convention, which gave EU member countries the right to send back asylum seekers to the first EU country they entered. Yet often, it is impossible to trace where illegal immigrants - many without documents - first arrived. Germany pushed the problem onto its eastern neighbors, declaring Poland and the Czech Republic, two important transit countries, equally "safe" for asylum seekers.

Without a unified policy on immigration, the EU has been split into preferred destinations, such as Britain and Germany, and countries used largely for transit, such as Italy or Greece. Inconsistencies in asylum laws mean that Britain recognizes non-state persecution - death squads and other terror groups - while Germany and France do not.

Even so, critics warn that the British initiative is merely an attempt at displacing the problem, rather than tackling its causes.

In New York this week, UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson defended the Geneva Convention on Refugees, saying that the focus on refugees only addressed half the problem. "I am concerned about an increasing tendency towards a 'fortress Europe' at a time when it doesn't make any economic sense," she said. According to UN figures, Europe's populations are shrinking dramatically.

With fewer workers to support them, pension systems could become nonviable. Berlin has launched a limited "green card" style program to entice foreign computer specialists to Germany, and other EU countries could follow suit. Yet some observers say much broader policies will be needed to end the labor shortage.

"The long-term issue is to look at what's happening to migration globally," says refugee expert Dr. Castles. "Whatever barriers you put in the way, if people see they can make 100 times as much, there will always be people willing to take great risks."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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