EU Grapples with Flood of Illegal Immigrants

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European Union officials are playing the blame game over the crisis of illegal immigration from Africa and elsewhere. Last year, Spain legalized over half a million immigrants, and that upset other EU countries. They accuse Spain of shifting responsibility for an influx of immigrants to other countries.


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Last night the U.S. Senate authorized construction of a 700-mile fence along the U.S./Mexican border. The House of Representatives had already passed a similar bill. The nations of Europe are also trying to deal with waves of illegal migrants crossing their borders. This year there was a sharp increase in the numbers of Africans making their way to Spain's Canary Islands, some 24,000. Thousands more reached the shores of Italy, Malta and Cyprus.

So this week, ministers from eight southern European countries met in Spain to forge a common stance on immigration. Like American politicians, they're having trouble reaching consensus.

We have a report now from Jerome Socolovsky, who begins his story in a mountain resort just north of Madrid.

JEROME SOCOLOVSKY: A black man used to be a rare sight here in the village of Miraflores de la Sierra; that is, until a few days ago. Now hundreds of Africans are being lodged by a humanitarian group in a hostel on the outskirts of town. Nearly all of them are men. During the day, they pass the time on park benches and cluster around phone booths.

(Soundbite of phone booth)

SOCOLOVSKY: They try to call relatives back home and pursue leads for jobs in this country's booming construction sector. Twenty-two-year-old Sharif Soh(ph) of Gambia says he spent a week and half crammed into a creaking wooden boat sailing to the Canary Islands. He spent a moth in detention there. But under Spanish law migrants cannot be held more than 40 days. So on Wednesday, after a flight to Madrid, Soh was set free and he was given a document in Spanish.

Mr. SHARIFF SOH (Gambian Immigrant): You know me. I cannot read the Spanish. This Spanish writing I cannot read that one, so I don't know.

SOCOLOVSKY: It's an expulsion order. But Soh thinks that Spanish police will not bother to enforce it.

Mr. SOH: The police give us papers. They say now we are free at the village. You are supposed to get papers, you will get it. They say they don't want any problems. They want to maintain the peace.

SOCOLOVSKY: Still, Spanish authorities are under increasing pressure to toughen their immigration practices. Yesterday, at the meetings of ministers from southern European nations in Madrid, the Spanish Deputy prime minister was on the defensive.

Ms. MARIA TERESA FERNANDEZ DE LA VEGA (Deputy Prime Minister, Spain): (Speaking Spanish)

SOCOLOVSKY: Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega conceded that last year's amnesty of more than half a million illegal immigrants was controversial. That amnesty angered other leaders in the European Union, because once in Spain, the migrants can travel freely across European borders. Before the meeting, French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy accused Spain of hypocrisy by first declaring a unilateral amnesty and then asking for help in dealing with the wave of immigrations.

Spain's Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero lashed back. He said Sarkozy was in no position to lecture on immigration policy, given last year's race riots in France.

Rickard Sandell is an immigration expert at the Royal Elcano Institute in Madrid.

Mr. RICKARD SANDELL (Elcano Institute): I think it would be wrong to put the blame on Spain for having the poorest continent on Earth next door.

SOCOLOVSKY: He says the real problem is that Africa cannot employ its growing labor force. At the same time, European voters are becoming increasingly anti-immigrant. And he noted that the French interior minister, Sarkozy, is running for president.

Mr. SANDELL: No. It's a difficult issue that has a political twist to it, that it can tip elections, and the one who is willing to grab the opportunity of occupying the niche of anti-immigration policies might have a lot to gain.

SOCOLOVSKY: So Sandell expects that E.U. leaders will be adopting tougher immigration policies.

For NPR News, I'm Jerome Socolovsky in Madrid.

ELLIOTT: And we have Jerome on the line now.

Jerome, what are some of the measures the European Union is considering to crack down on illegal immigrant?

SOCOLOVSKY: Well, there are some measures already in place. The southern members of European Union - Spain and other countries - want more resources for those measures. And basically we're talking about an operation called Frontex, which is joint patrols with African countries of the territorial waters of those countries, the idea being that when migrants are caught before they reach international waters, they can be sent right back to the shore. Spain wants to see more countries contribute to this force. Only a couple have sent boats and aircraft, which are patrolling thousands of miles of African coastline.

Northern Europeans say that each country should take care of its own borders, as they've always done within the European Union. And they're a bit upset that Spain had this amnesty last year that, according to them, instead of helping start with a clean slate, it actually made matters worse and attracted more migrants.

ELLIOTT: NPR's Jerome Socolovsky, thanks so much.

SOCOLOVSKY: You're welcome.

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