Special Report: Europe's other crisis

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 22, 2011 5:12 PM
Special Report: Europe's other crisis

By Sarah Edmonds

CALAIS, France, Jun (Reuters) - Like tens of thousands of migrants who have crossed the Mediterranean in the six months since the beginning of the Arab Spring, Yohanes came looking for a safer, more prosperous life. The 25-year-old Eritrean had been living in Libya for four years and planned to stay; violence forced him into a smuggler's boat and a perilous sea voyage to Europe.

Now, squatting with 100 other exiles in a derelict, rubbish-strewn factory in the French port town of Calais as he waits for word on his asylum application, he ponders a world as hellish as the one he left behind.

"I am living a cat-and-rat life in Calais with the police -- I don't know which one is rat," Yohanes, who refused to give his surname, told Reuters. "I sleep like this" -- he shut one eye and kept the other wide open -- "I never close all my eyes and I never take off my shoes. I have a ladder to escape."

He shakes his head at the treatment he has received in France. "When I was in Africa, I saw white people just like angels," he said. "Maybe one day they will change their mind. Maybe they will understand."

The International Organization for Migration (IMO) estimates a million people have flooded out of Libya alone since the uprisings began. The vast majority -- about 98 percent -- have ended up in neighboring states like Egypt, Tunisia or Algeria. But along with the thousands of Tunisians who have taken advantage of looser security following the fall of president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, enough have headed north to Europe to trigger a crisis there.

Illegal immigration to Europe is now on track to surpass the peak hit in 2008. The IMO says about 42,000 migrants have already crossed into Italy and Malta alone, surpassing the 40,000 total for the two countries in all of 2008.

The numbers piling into places such as Italy and France have taxed the resources of border police, fanned anti-immigrant sentiment from Finland to Greece and even spurred leaders to challenge one of the bloc's fundamental principles: the free movement of people inside the EU.

Arguments over how best to handle the influx are straining ties already stretched by the sovereign debt crisis. A dispute blew up in April when Italy handed out permits to asylum-seekers and economic migrants, allowing them free travel through the EU. France, in retaliation, shut its borders.

Paris and other EU capitals want countries to adhere to the principle that the country of arrival should be responsible for a migrant until his or her status is determined. But Italy argues it needs help to cope with the masses that have landed on Lampedusa, Sicily and other Italian islands in the past few months.

Italy has surpassed Greece -- which accounted for nine out of 10 such crossings last year -- as the main point of entry for illegal migrants, EU border agency Frontex said.

Italy and France have put immigration reform on the agenda for this week's regular EU summit. Don't expect radical changes, though. Some of the issues -- such as reform of asylum policies -- arouse deep-seated fears of surrendering power to Brussels, or facing an additional financial burden. They've been debated for years without result.

And while members may allow governments to impose temporary border controls, the basic form of the agreement that permits passport-free travel -- a treaty known as the Schengen agreement -- is likely to stand. Even the most immigrant-resistant states are reluctant to give up that convenience.

"I would never want that back in Europe -- good heavens!" said Soren Pind, Denmark's Minister for Refugees, Immigrants and Integration, who nevertheless favors keeping migrants in their country of arrival.

VOLTE FACE

But that doesn't mean Europe is not changing. Under pressure from the anti-immigrant Danish People's Party, Denmark opted in May to increase the number of customs officials stationed at its borders and step up spot checks. Pind called this an effort to deter crime, not people, and said it did not breach Schengen. Critics, though, worry that the checks will disrupt travel enough to amount to a de facto violation.

Britain, which is not part of the Schengen zone, is cutting the number of legal immigrants it lets in every year and says it is tightening up controls on illegal ones.

Such moves threaten to pit member states against each other. EU Commissioner for Industry and Entrepreneurship Antonio Tajani believes Europe needs to deal with migration as it is with Greece's debt crisis -- in a unified way.

"It's easy to understand the increasing appeal of protectionist or nationalist sentiment when there is an emergency situation, like the economic crisis or the immigration crisis. Such an approach could be effective but only in the short term," he said.

"Member states must understand that we all need a stronger Europe. Immigration is the same as the euro crisis. Today we are all helping Ireland, Greece and Portugal with aid we decided on together. Immigration is the same."

Or maybe not. Immigration is an emotive subject even in good times. In an age of austerity, high unemployment and bailouts, it's making some people in Europe furious.

Nationalist and anti-immigrant parties are becoming more vocal and gaining popularity among voters in a number of EU nations as well as in Switzerland, a non-EU Schengen member. Three in 10 Britons in a June Economist/Ipsos MORI poll said race relations/immigration is a key issue facing the country - second only to the economy.

Where only a decade ago, some politicians were selling the need for migrant labor to keep growth going and prices low, EU leaders and ordinary Europeans alike now worry about economic migrants -- those who move to another country for a better job or social benefits, rather than to escape persecution or violence.

In Rome, one such migrant -- Tunisian Oussama Moustapha -- has direct experience of the consequences. By day, the 19-year-old wanders around Rome's Termini railway station. At night, he crowds into a holding center 30 km outside the capital or beds down on the couch of anyone who will take him. His small store of cash is rapidly running out. What he does have is a laminated residency permit issued by Italy and a fierce desire to get to France and find work.

Moustapha paid 600 euros for his March trip to Lampedusa. After nearly 20 hours at sea, the helmsman of the rickety boat he and 64 other Tunisians were crammed into lost his way and the engine broke down.

"By then, we had run out of water and food," he said. "I thought: this is it, we are all going to die." The boat was rescued by a fisherman after port authorities refused to come to their aid.

Then Italy's Civil Protection Authority handed him and hundreds of others stranded at the station a free ticket to the town of Ventimiglia, right on the border with France.

The French police were waiting. "They were dragging people out of the train and putting them into vans before sending them back to Italy," Moustapha said in fluent French. "I've seen people come back with handcuff marks on their wrists and bruises all over their body. I was scared, so I ran away back to the border.

"I was lucky. I have heard that others had their permits taken away or ripped apart by the police. (President Nicolas) Sarkozy doesn't want us."

This chill may make it hard to address a key foreign policy challenge: If it is to influence North Africa as it searches for a new identity, the EU needs to do more than just shut its doors.

"We think that Europe should look at this as a big opportunity," said William Spindler, senior public information officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. "Countries in northern Africa are going through profound transformations and they need help to consolidate these changes. If these countries can become more free, more democratic, more prosperous, it is to the advantage of everybody."

Spindler adds that while economic migration may not be a universal human right, asylum is. Europe must take care not to deny protection to those who need it while trying to shut out those who don't.

HOLES IN THE ROOF

In a field office in Calais, UNHCR protection officer Mathilde Tiberghien advises migrants how to seek refugee status in France. She said refugees fleeing trouble at home are bewildered by police suspicion and the reluctance of European nations to offer them safe harbor.

"These people survive persecution in their own country and then, in Libya, they survive persecution again. So we see that these people, when they come, they arrive extremely tired." Calais has always been a magnet for migrants, many of whom eye the UK across the Channel and are prepared to risk their lives attempting to cross it. While there has been no marked increase since the Arab Spring, Tiberghien says French police have grown more aggressive.

Yohanes, the Eritrean who sleeps with one eye open, fled Libya when he found himself targeted by both police and locals after the rebels started their campaign against Gaddafi. Many Libyans worried that he and other Africans from south of the Sahara were mercenaries, he said.

"In Libya as well, I was sleeping just like this situation. I was sleeping rough and we have to be careful with the police. If the police come, we run. We worked and we put money inside here" -- he gestured to his crotch -- "to pay the agent to go to Italy."

He said he was robbed at knifepoint before he managed to buy illegal passage to Lampedusa. Italian authorities took him to Sicily, where he slipped away and hid in a truck bound for Calais.

His story echoes that of many other migrants at African House, the latest abandoned building to bear the name. The factory's brick and cinderblock units -- each occupied by a different national group -- are chilly despite the warm sunshine outside; migrants have lit scrap-wood fires for warmth.

The holes in the roof of Eritrean Corner, where Yohanes and his compatriots sleep, force them to cower in corners when it rains or snows. There is no running water. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are provided by local NGOs at a makeshift food distribution center a half-hour walk away, at the port. There are two sets of showers for hundreds of migrants. The arrival of a minivan to ferry African House occupants to one prompts shouts and a race down the cobbled courtyard to get on board.

Police stage surprise raids at unpredictable times of the day and night, sending African House's occupants scuttling up their ladders into lofts beneath the factory roof. Celine Dallery, a nurse at the free clinic for Calais' homeless, says some break limbs as they attempt to escape.

UNHCR's Spindler, on his first visit to African House in weeks, is shocked at what he finds. "It seems as though the policy now of some European countries is to make conditions so bad that people will go somewhere else to claim asylum, and for us this is wrong."

HEAVEN?

But in France, where unemployment hovers around 9 percent of the total population and 23 percent of non-EU foreigners, residents question how many more immigrants the country can absorb without damaging the country's social safety net or budget position.

Although he arrived as an immigrant himself in 1991, 31-year-old Bouba Bonnier, an Algerian-born Frenchman who works as a decorator in Paris, supports the calls to temporarily tighten internal borders against the Tunisians.

"When France says we can't welcome all the misery in the world, I understand. Tunisians think that here, it's heaven. But here, we have unemployment," Bonnier said.

Just blocks away, on the fringes of the working-class 19th arrondissement, about 100 young North Africans -- mainly Tunisians -- have set up camp in the playground equipment of a public park. Some have tents, others have blankets spread on the grass. Nervous mothers have stopped taking their children there to play; local business managers say they have been approached by desperate Tunisians asking for under-the-table jobs.

EUROPE'S CONUNDRUM

But blocking migrants may turn out to be short-sighted for a continent faced with an aging population and a dwindling pool of tax-paying workers.

According to a European Commission report issued earlier this year, the EU's working-age population will start to shrink in 2014, a worrying trend for Baby Boomers facing retirement. Many European governments, trying to tame huge deficits and confronted with the prospect of a surge in retirees, are raising retirement ages and preparing pension reforms.

Fifty-year-old Parisian Jean-Marc, who refused to give his last name, said immigrants should be allowed in.

"There has always been immigration," he said. "We need it. If all the immigrants in France stopped working for a week, then the whole country would be paralyzed."

If nothing changes, the Commission report argues, there will be just two workers for every retired person by 2060 -- half the current level. Crucially, according to Commission estimates, EU states will be short up to 2 million workers in health care in the next decade -- just as the needs of an aging population are mounting.

"Migration, especially from non-EU countries, could provide a (temporary) respite from population aging, since most people migrate primarily as young adults," the Commission said. It argues that the EU should offer trade and visa benefits to North African countries as an incentive to stop residents coming to Europe illegally. The IMO also says a proper legal mechanism for immigration from developing nations would help.

But such steps are unlikely to appeal to European nations fearful of appearing too welcoming.

Some, like Denmark's Pind, agree that Europe needs migrants, but say they should be skilled. He cited a study that showed immigrants from developed countries contributed to the Danish economy, while those from the developing world cost it.

"Does this mean that we don't want migrants from non-western countries? No, it does not," he said. "It means that it should at least in many ways be easier for people from the West to come to Europe and to come to Denmark. And we should at least be open to immigration from less-developed countries -- but it should be skills-based."

SMUGGLERS UNDETERRED

This much is certain: Europe's current policies appear to be doing little to deter the illegal people-smuggling networks.

In Zarzis, a town on Tunisia's Mediterranean coast and a favored launch point for boatloads of illegal migrants to Italy, a people-smuggler who gave his name as Ahmed explained that France's tougher attitude has made some potential customers hesitant. But it hasn't hurt long-term demand.

"We have not stopped our voyages to Lampedusa," he told Reuters in May. "I have now lowered the prices from 3,000 Tunisian dinars to 1,800 ? and I have 500 people signed up for this week."

Until this year, the numbers setting off from Tunisia were relatively small because security forces patrolled the shores and punished anyone trying to cross, in accordance with a bilateral deal with Italy. But Tunisia's revolution has changed all that.

A Reuters journalist watched two boats - each crammed with more than 50 illegal migrants - put out to sea from the beach in Zarzis in the dark. There was no sign of police or coast guards.

Migrants interviewed by Reuters told of simply walking away from Italy's reception centers, or evading detection entirely and hopping onto trucks or trains for other EU countries in search of family members, a ready-made community or better reception conditions.

This week's EU summit may not agree to sweeping policy changes but it could yield more power and cash for Frontex, the EU agency responsible for external borders. That can't come too soon for its Deputy Director Gil Arias Fernandez.

While Frontex has no policing authority, it advises and supports border nations on everything from early detection of boats in trouble to processing migrants. The five operations it is currently running are depleting its funds rapidly.

"As long as the current situation could remain for a long period, we are exhausted in terms of resources," Fernandez said. "We would need the European institutions to allocate some additional budget for our operational activities. Otherwise, we cannot cope until the end of the year."

But in Tunisia, smuggler Kamel Btiri says beefed up policing won't work.

"I have a message for France," he said, "every time you adopt inhumane measures, we will bring you more young people."

(Additional reporting by Tarek Amara in Zarzis, Tunisia, Justyna Pawlak in Brussels, Natalie Huet in Paris, Silvia Aloisi in Rome; Writing by Sarah Edmonds; Editing by Simon Robinson and Sara Ledwith)