Storm over African immigrants clouds EU talks

Controversy over the frequently tragic attempts of African immigrants to storm the European Union’s Spanish borders clouded European Union talks on Wednesday, amid a claim the bloc is trying to erect new “Berlin walls”.

EU justice commissioner Franco Frattini briefed ministers about an EU mission to the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa, which have been assaulted by waves of African would-be EU immigrants.

“This is not only a problem of Spain being so close to Morocco but a problem of the whole of the European Union,” Spanish Justice Minister Juan Fernando Lopez Aguilar said before talks with his EU counterparts here.

He said humanitarian aid was needed “first and foremost” but added that in the long term, any solution would have to include a “a strategy for cooperating on the development of a whole continent in despair, the African continent”.

Wednesday’s ministerial meeting had originally been due to focus on a debate over retaining telecommunications and internet data for combatting terrorism.

But after a spate of deaths as desperate immigrants struggled to cross the border at Ceuta and Melilla into Spanish—and therefore EU—territory, it switched focus to the increasingly urgent immigration question.

Morocco and Spain, the countries directly involved, called on Tuesday for an EU-African conference bringing together countries affected by immigration.

The European Commission believes “we need to address the root causes of immigration but this we don’t do overnight,” Frattini’s spokesperson, Friso Roscam Abbing, said on the sidelines of the meeting here.

The interior ministers of Spain, France and Italy—seen as Europe’s immigration frontline—were absent from the talks despite the recent media attention devoted to the issue because of the drama in Spanish enclaves.

About 14 people have died in recent months while trying to break into the enclaves, some of them shot by Moroccan security forces.

Morocco has also come under fire for dumping hundreds of the would-be immigrants in desert areas near the Algerian border.

The United Nations refugee agency urged countries on Tuesday not to forcibly repatriate migrants, and sent experts to Morocco to examine the plight of hundreds of West Africans there trying to reach Europe. The EU ministers heard from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres.

The recent drama at the two Spanish enclaves has sparked fresh criticism of the bloc’s handling of illegal immigration and its failure to determine if some would-be immigrants should legitimately get refugee protection.

“We are seeing an attempt to construct new Berlin walls around Europe that has tragic consequences and will not work,” said Peer Baneke, general secretary of the European Council of Refugees and Exiles, a pressure group.

“Countries at Europe’s periphery will continue to be tempted to deny refugees their right to seek protection, while people fleeing for their lives and liberty will be forced to take ever greater risks,” Baneke added.

The head of Amnesty International’s EU office, Dick Oosting, said: “Shamefully, EU member states are shifting the burden of refugee protection to other countries which may be ill-equipped to deal with the ever increasing numbers of displaced people.” - AFP


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