The European Union's debate over illegal immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers became much more sensitive after a ship holding some 500 immigrants sank last week near the Italian island of Lampedusa. Some 200 people drowned and as many as 150 are still missing.
The incident prompted the Italian government to demand a renegotiation of EU policies on the issue, which home affairs ministers from member states will discuss during a meeting Oct. 8. While immigration will remain central to the EU agenda for some time, little progress will be made because EU members have neither the will nor the ability to enact meaningful reform.
Europe's geographic position and high standards of living make it an attractive destination for African, Middle Eastern and Eastern European immigrants. According to the European Council of Refugees and Exiles, around 1.5 million of the world's 16 million recognized refugees currently live legally in Europe. Several million more immigrants live illegally on the continent.
This creates tension in nations along the southern and eastern borders of the European Union — they are the main entry points for illegal immigrants and asylum seekers entering the bloc. EU members have criticized Greece particularly heavily for its inadequate border control, which enables illegal immigrants to enter the country from Turkey and the Western Balkans.
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High levels of instability ranging from violent unrest to full-fledged civil wars in North Africa and the Levant are also leading to an increased flow of immigrants into Italy. Human trafficking groups also take people from as far as Somalia and Eritrea to crossing points in North Africa, usually Libya. When Moammar Gadhafi was in power, Italy and Libya had an agreement whereby Italy's coast guard could swiftly deport illegal immigrants back to Libyan shores without filing asylum applications. But the crisis in Libya ended the deal. Ironically, after the tragedy at Lampedusa, Rome granted citizenship to those who died as a gesture of political goodwill. Those who survived could be repatriated to their countries of origin because illegal immigration is a crime in Italy.
The civil war in Syria has also led to a spike in asylum seekers. The Bulgarian government has been particularly vocal about this issue. Sofia is coping with increased immigration as it goes through a severe economic and political crisis.
The issue is also controversial in northern Europe. As the economic crisis spreads to the north, governments are under increased popular pressure to curb immigration, legal and illegal alike. This week, the British government will present a bill to conduct additional background checks on foreigners living in the country and speed up the deportation of illegal immigrants. In Sweden, a country that traditionally has been receptive to refugees, the riots that took place in neighborhoods with large immigrant populations in May opened a debate about the issue. In France, the government of Socialist President Francois Hollande has not changed Paris' policy of cracking down on Roma camps and expelling illegal immigrants.
At the core of the debate in Europe is a key question: Who is ultimately responsible for asylum seekers? According to current EU policy, known as the Dublin Regulation, the country in which a person first arrived is responsible for dealing with them. Governments in the south demand a more proportional distribution of refugees and asylum seekers among EU countries, while governments in the north are interested in preserving the current policy. The latter is not always possible. German courts have frequently prohibited planned deportations to Greece and Italy of asylum seekers who had originally entered the European Union through those countries.
These tensions are explained by Europe's enduring dilemma between supranational integration and national prerogatives. EU treaties permit the free movement of people within the continent, and most of the EU nations are part of the Schengen zone, which eliminates border controls among member states. This means that once they enter the European Union, immigrants can move freely within the continent relatively unfettered. This policy is not without controversy. In April 2011, the French government temporarily canceled all train connections with Italy after Rome gave travel permits to illegal immigrants from Northern Africa, which supposedly allowed them to move freely to other EU nations.
But members of the European Union also retain a substantial degree of autonomy on how refugees are treated and on how their asylum requests are processed. Since the early 2000s, the European Union has tried to consolidate a Common European Asylum System meant to harmonize policies among member states. However, these initiatives focus mostly on information sharing and better border controls; they have no real impact on what happens after the immigrants enter European territory.
The crises in North Africa, the Levant and Europe add a new dimension to the political fragmentation of the European Union. With instability in North Africa and the Levant likely to remain high, and as the economic crisis keeps expanding to northern Europe, the situation of asylum seekers, refugees and illegal immigrants is likely to keep creating friction among EU members.
Southern nations will continue to push Brussels to revise the policy even as they themselves violate those policies. Northern and southern Europe will continue to contend with anti-immigration political parties and will be forced to adopt some parts of those parties' agendas. As the economic, political and security pressures keep mounting for some EU members, unilateral decisions will become more frequent. In this context, a comprehensive approach to immigration is becoming increasingly unlikely.