By A. D. McKenzie
PARIS, Mar 1, 2010 (IPS) – The European Union is studying a range of measures aimed at strengthening its external borders to deter undocumented migrants from entering via Mediterranean member states such as Italy, Greece, Cyprus and Spain.
Following a meeting of EU immigration and interior ministers called by France late last week in Brussels, the 27-nation group wants to implement a “European police force” and bolster Frontex, the EU agency responsible for external border security, French immigration minister Eric Besson told journalists.
Meanwhile, the French human rights organisation GISTI (Group for Information and Support to Immigrants) has called for Monday, Mar. 1, to be a day without work and/or consumption, to “protest against the fate meted out to foreigners, legal or undocumented”.
The group said it wants to stress its support for “equal rights between French people of all origins and foreigners or supposed foreigners.” It is organising demonstrations in Paris, Nice, Marseilles and other towns under the banner “24 Hours Without Us”. Many essential jobs throughout France are done by immigrants.
With the newly proposed EU measures, the French government says it wants to protect lives and to dismantle migrant-trafficking networks.
“Faced with the worsening situation in the Mediterranean, which is the scene of daily ‘irregular- immigration’ dramas, France has not ceased, since the summer of 2009, to alert the EU to the major challenges posed by the illegal migration networks in this strategic region for the Schengen Area,” Besson said in an address to his counterparts in Brussels.
“People are dying every day in the Mediterranean, anonymously, victims of the cynicism and the greed of modern-day slavers,” he added. “People are entering illegally every day into the Schengen Area from the Mediterranean, sometimes in a sincere search for protection, but most often without this motive.”
France, a member of the Schengen zone that has dismantled its internal borders, has proposed 29 measures for the EU to consider. These include “urgent revision” of Frontex’s regulations to improve its operational capabilities, and the dismantling of migrant-trafficking networks a priority for Europol, the EU’s criminal intelligence bureau.
France would also like to see “systematic operational cooperation” between the EU and the countries from which the migrants emigrate or which they use as transit points, said the French immigration ministry.
Such cooperation would mean the repatriation of undocumented migrants, the strengthening of surveillance, the establishment of common land and sea patrols, and the collection and exchange of information, the ministry said.
Besson also proposed several joint projects with Libya and Turkey, where many migrant-trafficking networks allegedly operate. He said the measures were urgent and should be implemented without delay, preferably by the end of the year.
He first called for an EU plan of action last September after eight African migrants drowned off the coast of Morocco when their overloaded boat sank as it headed to Europe. Dozens of people have died in their attempt to reach European countries and the prospect of better lives.
Some critics, however, see the French and EU actions as further moves to fortify Europe against asylum seekers. The proposals also come ahead of French regional elections in March where right-wing politicians seem keen to benefit from anti-immigrant sentiment.
The group French Coordination for the Right to Asylum (CFDA), which comprises some 20 organisations including Amnesty International and Médecins du Monde, says that the right to asylum is being “profoundly recast” with a climate of suspicion being created around those seeking refuge.
Among industrialised countries, France ranks second after the United States in the number of asylum requests registered, with 47,000 last year, an increase of more than 10 percent from 2008, Besson said. Overall, the EU had an estimated 119,000 asylum requests in the first half of 2009, according to figures from the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency.
But developing countries are also dealing with large migratory flows, with an estimated 40 percent of all refugees based in these states, the UNHCR says. Most of these countries are ill-equipped to take care of refugees, a situation that NGOs say the EU should take into consideration.
“There should be no reason why European countries are so fearful of migrants,” Dan Rosenthal, a spokesman for the transnational network No Borders, told IPS.
“They (governments) have created a connection between being a migrant and being a criminal,” he said. “People should be able to go where they want to, and the money currently being spent on tightening borders, preventing immigration and detaining people could be used more wisely.”
He said migrants leave their country of origin for reasons including war, official repression, poverty, climate change and a range of other reasons that are not being addressed by government officials.
Many of the undocumented migrants in France are from war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan, the two countries that accounted for most of the asylum-seekers that landed in industrialised countries last year, according to the UNHCR. Somalia, also in the grip of a civil war, was the third-largest source country of asylum seekers.
“Why is there such ‘aggression’ by the state against migrants forced to flee from wars, violence and misery?” asked the French group SoS Sans Papiers when French authorities expelled undocumented migrants from a hangar in Calais recently.
French president Nicolas Sarkozy said on television that he did not want to see migrants “arriving on rafts” or being deposited on the beaches of France by traffickers as has happened in the Mediterranean.