Fears of illegal migration stirred by Arab unrest

AP News
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Posted: Apr 06, 2011 5:21 AM
Fears of illegal migration stirred by Arab unrest

A steady stream of TV images of a tiny Italian island being overrun by North Africans has stirred European fears of a new surge of illegal migration driven by anti-government uprisings in the Arab world.

Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, who has met with Tunisian leaders to try to fix the problem at the source, has even warned of a "human tsunami" about to hit Europe's shores.

Some critics say Berlusconi and other European politicians have blown the crisis out of proportion for domestic needs. But there are signs the turmoil in the Arab world, coupled with harsher economic times in the region, will provide impetus for more young people to seek a better future in Europe.

The latest wave of illegal migration from North Africa _ about 23,000 people _ began after Tunisians expelled their longtime ruler, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, in a popular uprising in mid-January. Tunisia set off pro-democracy movements across the region, with Egyptians ousting longtime leader Hosni Mubarak and Libyans rising up against dictator Moammar Gadhafi in a revolt that has spiraled into civil war.

Gadhafi recently warned that "thousands of people will invade Europe from Libya" if the international community, which is backing an uprising against him, succeeds in toppling him. For European leaders, that's not idle Gadhafi rhetoric _ they know the Libyan has been key to keeping migrants out of Europe in the past.

In Tunisia, Ben Ali had also clamped down on illegal migration, in part to curry favor with the West, but the caretaker government replacing him has largely looked the other way.

That encouraged jobless Tunisians to embark on the dangerous two-day trip to Lampedusa. In recent weeks, they have been cramming into small fishing vessels, paying smugglers from euro1,000 to euro1,400 per person. From the island, they are taken to holding centers for document checks.

A 27-year-old Tunisian factory worker, who makes 10 dinars (euro5) a day, said he had saved for the passage for two years and boarded a fishing vessel last month in the Tunisian port of Zarzis, one of 130 passengers. The boat turned back when one of the motors broke down, the man said on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions. The smugglers did not return his fare, he said.

On Wednesday, the Italian coast guard was trying to rescue migrants whose boat had capsized near Lampedusa. Officials said they had so far saved 48 out of 200 people believed to have been on board, but several corpses were also spotted at sea.

Even before the uprising, Tunisia had 14 percent unemployment. It's now likely higher because the revolt devastated Tunisia's tourism industry, a mainstay of the economy.

Berlusconi has said repatriation of the migrants is the main solution to the crisis. However, in a deal struck with Tunisia on Tuesday, Rome agreed to give short-term residency papers to 20,000 illegal migrants, but remains intent on deporting new arrivals. Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni told reporters that the measures would allow Italy "to turn off the faucet" on illegal immigration.

The Tunisian government may be reluctant to accept large-scale repatriation, said Jean-Pierre Cassarino, a professor at the European University Institute. It would be an unpopular policy at a time when Tunisia's interim leaders are seeking legitimacy, he said.

In Rome, the new wave of migration has caused a huge political row. Berlusconi's chief political ally, the anti-immigrant Northern League, said the country should not put out the welcome mat for the new arrivals, while the opposition said the government has failed in handling the crisis.

Italy has asked fellow European nations to take in some of the migrants. The EU border agency has sent a team, but Italy wants more tangible support from individual nations.

In France _ the final destination of many migrants from French-speaking former colonies in North Africa _ the far-right National Front has taken advantage of the renewed immigration worries.

Marine Le Pen, already stumping for next year's French presidential elections, traveled to Lampedusa last month. Soon afterward, her party performed well in local elections. The resurgence of her anti-immigrant party is seen as a threat to conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose party did poorly in that election.

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon has called for increased surveillance of the European Union's coastlines and said Italy deserves EU funding to deal with the flood of illegal migrants.

However, some say the recent influx isn't all that unusual.

"The relative importance of the illegal boat migration ... is hugely exaggerated," said migration expert Hein de Haas of Oxford University.

North Africans have secretly entered southern Europe for the past 20 years, ever since Italy and Spain imposed visa requirements, de Haas said. He noted that before visas were required, many North Africans came to southern Europe for seasonal work, but then returned home.

The latest arrivals from Tunisia make up only a fraction of the legal and illegal immigration to Europe, he said.

In 2008, about 1.8 million non-Europeans immigrated to European Union countries, which have a combined population of about 500 million people, according to EU figures.

Last year, most illegal migrants tried to enter EU territory through member state Greece, approaching either from Turkey or Albania, because other Mediterranean routes were blocked in recent years, said the European border security agency Frontex. In the first nine months of 2010, more than 56,000 were caught trying to sneak in that way.

"Combating people smugglers and traffickers is like squeezing a balloon," said Frontex spokeswoman Izabella Cooper. "If you close one route, migratory pressure would move elsewhere."

And even Lampedusa was the target of a much bigger migration wave in the past: In 2008, some 36,000 illegal migrants reached the island from Libya.

The flow stopped after Berlusconi paid Gadhafi some $5 billion as compensation for Italy's occupation of Libya in the first half of the 20th century. In exchange, Gadhafi cracked down on illegal migration from Libya.

In a recent newspaper interview, the dictator warned there would be chaos, including mass migration, if his regime falls.

In Brussels, an EU spokesman, Marcin Grabiec, played down the risk posed by Libya. He said violence there could trigger a new wave of refugees, "but at the moment that's not the case."

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Associated Press writers Victor Simpson in Rome and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed reporting.