By Aleksander Thomas. Originally published on 2012/10/13
Due to the influx of North African migrants into the southern countries of the European Union – chiefly through Italy, the EU has allowed countries within the Schengen area to reintroduce national border controls in order to monitor the flow of illegal immigration.
Immigration has become a significant matter for the national politics of numerous member states, as the European Union over the past years has been accepting an average of 1.8 million immigrants yearly. This influx of immigrants has resulted in the revival of anti-immigration parties in countries such as France, Austria and the Netherlands.
Bringing back border checks will only be certified in exceptional circumstances. However, this measure is seen as already one step forward in fighting the problem of immigration. As Mr. Thorbjorn Jagland, Secretary-General of the Council of Europe, stated: “I’m worried that borders might be back. […] This could be a very bad thing for Europe.” The unconstrained travel through seven European countries was granted in 1995 by the introduction of the Schengen zone (Schengen rules involve eliminating border controls with other Schengen members while simultaneously strengthening border controls with non-member states), which members has since then increased to twenty-two European Union countries.
A European immigration crisis?
This “crisis” started on the 6th of April 2011 when a boat carrying migrants from North Africa capsized in heavy seas near the southern Italian island of Lampedusa. The island then became the new focal point for immigrants fleeing from the unrest in North Africa, as it is midway between Tunisia and Sicily. Since the beginning of the year approximately 20,000 immigrants, mostly young men, have entered southern Italy through this island.
The ever-increasing desperate attempts to flee the unrest in North Africa has repeatedly resulted in the overcrowding and consequent sinking of refugee boats and the death of young Africans. The multitude of fatal accidents coincides with the growing problem of illegal migration in the Mediterranean Sea and highlights the growing challenge for European officials, as they have to seek a common policy to deal with the incursion. The toppled governments of Tripoli and Tunis, which once played an important role in blocking African migration to Europe, have ceased their cooperation whilst domestic unrests have increased the numbers of illegal immigrants seeking refuge in Europe. Since the commencement of the unrests, around 200,000 migrants have landed on Italian shores alone.
Migration before the Arab revolutions
Migrations to Europe, either fleeing from unacceptable conditions or motivated by the attraction of higher living standards, have occurred throughout history. For instance, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand were created through large scale migration flows from Europe (and also Africa in the case of the US). Therefore, why is migration considered a problem? Migration can become a problem when the host country experiences economic difficulties, as immigration puts additional pressure on the budget of a national government. The US, for instance, only introduced quotas on immigrant numbers s from the Great Depression time of the twentieth century onwards as it tried to deal with its own economic problems.
In Europe, however, the United Kingdom, France and Italy have allowed immigration from their former colonies relatively unchecked from the 1960s onwards (despite various crises), and continued to allow significant levels of immigrants even after the economic downturn in the first decade of the 21st century. The recent political actions to restrict immigration flows therefore need to be considered as a consequence of the rising pressure on budget, and not, as often claimed as a reaction to the increasing number of foreigners settling in EU member states (anti-immigration backlash). Governments across Europe, especially in the Eurozone countries, are significantly cutting their spending. The main reductions occur in the welfare budget, traditionally one of the biggest spending areas of modern states. With unemployment at high levels and economic growth unlikely to reduce them in the short term, governments are reacting strongly to try to prevent further deterioration in this area, which would cause a noticeable erosion of welfare standards to existing residents.
How governments try to address the issue of immigration
Despite the efforts of governments to tackle the issue, immigration still remains a growing problem. When immigration flows surpassed Lampedusa’s capacity to shelter immigrants, the Italian government’s immediate action was to give temporary residence permits to all asylum applicants. Moreover, on the 5th of May 2011 the Commission proposed to create a common EU asylum and immigration policy, which is likely to be severely opposed by the European Parliament (due to unresolved questions concerning the role of non-EU states, intra-EU solidarity in the asylum granting process and the allocation of funds). Hence Juan Lopez Aguilar, a Spanish Socialist member of the European Parliament, called the proposalunacceptable. However, despite the launch of a common border protection programme under Frontex in 2005, efforts to create a common European Asylum System have stalled.
Thus, the immigration issue remains controversial. Moreover, the role of the press and its influence, as well as the subsequent pressures to resolve the problems, have worsened the situation.
It is clear that motivated by the desire for higher living standards (as Enrique Santiago (CEAR Spanish Refugee Commission) put it: “[Migrants] are trying to abandon their misery”) and fuelled by the global media networks, migrants will continue to flow into Europe. Symbolic measures to control immigration are unlikely to cease the process. Migrants will find ways, either legally or illegally. What is needed is a raise of standards of living in the countries the migrants are coming from.
The Common Asylum Policy has to be a priority in the discussions throughout the EU Agenda, as countries only have a couple of more months left to establish an efficient Common European Asylum System (they have committed themselves to create CEAS by 2012 as part of the Lisbon Treaty). The question is, will the negotiations within the member States lead to a harmonised legislation, or will the lack of unity lead to a malfunctioning system?
Initial member states were Germany, France, the Benelux countries, Spain and Portugal.