Deaths highlight EU immigration troubles

The deaths of five people during a night of clashes on the Spanish-Moroccan border on Thursday once again threw into focus the growing pressure exerted by illegal immigration on the gateways into the European Union across the Mediterranean Sea.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero met his Moroccan counterpart Driss Jettou in Seville on Thursday for talks on the problem following the unrest on Morocco’s border with Ceuta, a Spanish enclave on the North African coast.

Five people died before dawn when hundreds of would-be immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa attempted to storm the border fence around the enclave, just across the Strait of Gibraltar that divides Africa from mainland Europe.

The European Commission called on its members to bolster cooperation with third countries to avert similar incidents.

Spain’s troubles are by no means unique among its fellow EU member-states that border the Mediterranean. All face a daily challenge in trying to contain illegal immigration, while also respecting the rights of potential asylum-seekers.

According to the Italian interior ministry, more than 7 500 would-be immigrants landed in the first half of 2005 on the southern island of Lampedusa, a focal point for people arriving from the coasts of Libya and Tunisia.

Malta faces a similar challenge, compounded by its small size, and multiplied in gravity since the island joined the European Union.

Valetta on September 27 warned that the arrival of 235 stowaways over the weekend threatened to plunge the island nation into a humanitarian crisis, and appealed to Brussels for help.

“It is equivalent to the arrival of 23 500 people in Sicily,” said Maltese Interior Minister Tonio Borg.

In Cyprus, heightened vigilance against illegal immigration landed the authorities in trouble in June, when a group of Chinese travel agents invited to promote the island was mistakenly detained by airport immigration officials.

In contrast to Malta and Cyprus, which effectively have one coastline to monitor, Greece has dozens of islands and islets scattered across the Aegean Sea facing Turkey, a region where Greek coastguard patrols make scores of interceptions every month.

The coastguard reported 3 047 arrests in 2004, and 1 280 interceptions by June 30 this year.

A more perilous option is the overland route across the Greek-Turkish border, which was mined following the Turkish invasion of northern Cyprus in 1974, and where more than 70 migrants have been killed since 1994, according to a toll compiled by Agence France Presse.

Turkey, which aspires to join the European Union, has long been a major route for immigrants from poor Asian and African countries trying to sneak into prosperous Europe, but officials say the influx has been somewhat reduced after Ankara toughened sanctions against trafficking.

About 387 000 illegal immigrants and about 5 000 suspected traffickers were detained between 2000 and 2004, official statistics show.

According to a 2003 report by the international Organisation for Migration (IOM), the annual number of illegal immigrants transiting through Turkey may be estimated to be around 200 000.

The IOM report predicted that the business of sneaking migrants across Turkey likely involved half a billion US dollars (€415-million) per year, on the assumption that a migrant pays an average of $2 500 to traffickers.

Earlier this month, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said governments should do more to facilitate migrant disembarkation, lest ship captains be discouraged from even fishing them out of the water in future.

Italy, which recently expelled a number of illegal immigrants to Libya under a bilateral accord never made public, has been roundly criticised by the European Court of Human Rights and the European Parliament for not allowing people to apply for asylum.

On September 20, thirteen European parliamentarians accused Rome of emptying an immigrant holding camp on Lampedusa island, just before they arrived to inspect it.

They also argued that cramped conditions at the camp raised concern of human rights abuse. - AFP

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