Strain in Spain

All summer long, Spanish television broadcasts were dominated by images of undocumented African immigrants arriving on the Canary Islands. Cameras panned over hundreds of would-be Europeans, emaciated, dehydrated, bewildered -- and dolorous at the knowledge that they were now in immigration purgatory. Spanish authorities led them to and fro, most wearing gloves and masks, which added to the surrealism of the scene. "Subsaharans," the papers anxiously called the immigrants, were trying to penetrate the more open Spanish borders in this tourist enclave. The government was in a panic. In August, boat after rickety boat arrived in a seemingly unceasing flow. Indeed, more immigration attempts were made in August than in the preceding seven months combined. Over 20,000 migrants have made the journey into Spain since January.

In response, the Spanish deputy prime minister Maria Fernandez de la Vega and her counterparts schlepped from Brussels to Finland in an effort to make sure the European Union recognized that this was a European problem, not just a Spanish one. De la Vega rustled up funds for patrolling the borders and organized a conference (held last Friday) of all the Mediterranean border countries to address the issue. But other European countries weren't so quick to support Spain in her effort to corral the EU around this issue, blaming the influx squarely on Spain's amnesty of over half a million undocumented immigrants last year. The real reasons for the uptick in immigration are more complex. Spain's economic miracle of the last decade has played a big role, as Spaniards, like other wealthy Europeans, have happily abandoned low-skilled jobs to newcomers to Iberia. The problem is the destination encompasses more than Spain.

"We are not talking about the borders of Spain, Malta, Portugal, France, Italy, Greece, Slovenia or Cyprus," emphasized Miguel Ángel Moratinos, the Spanish foreign minister at last week's conference, "This is Europe's external border." Moratinos isn't speaking metaphorically. The EU's freedom of movement policies ensure that any naturalized citizen in Spain can move uninhibited from the Iberian Peninsula north. Many of those who arrived this summer wanted to take advantage of exactly that -- French-speaking Africans, for example, saught to slide north into France or Belgium.

But Spain's northern neighbors have been openly critical of Spanish immigration policies for some time. It was Jose Luis Zapatero's government thatissued amnesty to nearly 600,000 undocumented immigrants since he took office, a move which other European nations greeted with dismay. In particular, Nicolas Sarkozy, the conservative French presidential candidate who recently met with George W. Bush in Washington, started a sniping battle with Zapatero through the media over Spains migrant problems. (Zapatero responded to Sarkozy's initial remark with a snide comment of his own referencing last year's riots outside of Paris.)

Sarkozy wants to limit immigration and advocates establishing an EU-run asylum agency. But his approach is also a patchwork response that fails to address both the reasons why people are fleeing their native countries and the ways in which illegal immigration is used in Europe. "It is quite clear that the EU is completely incoherent regarding illegal immigration, because we want to fight illegal immigration but at the same time we have an informal economy which is quite important," says Phillip de Bruckner, founder of the Odysseus Network , a scholarly organization studying immigration and asylum issues in Europe

Adds Jean Pierre Cassarino, the scientific coordinator for the Return Migration to the Maghreb (MIRAM) program (part of the Robert Schuman Center for Advanced Studies, in Florence, Italy), "I can say that it is a fallacy that the EU and its member states are in a position to manage immigration flows whether illegal or legal….We know what is happening on the coasts of Spain of Italy," he says, "But there is also a great lack of cooperation not only within or between EU member states but also between the EU and the north African countries ."

At the conference in Madrid last week, member nations consoled themselves by saying there is no "magic" response to immigration issues. But Cassarino remains critical. "So far the incentives that have been proposed by the EU have been absolutely unsatisfying," he says.

It is not a question of incentives, but of also understanding the real challenges that third world countries both in sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa are facing regarding migration flows…. There are no economic prospects! There is no future! Only unemployment and poverty. As long as these practical problems are not solved, it is clear the situation will not work. We must revamp the cooperative framework between the north and south Mediterranean. And it is not only a question of revamping, it is also a question of finding shared interests which are not necessarily security oriented….It is also a question of giving opportunities to people in these countries to stay and at least to go abroad to acquire the necessary skills and the financial capital in order to come back to their own capitals and do something new, and for their own countries.

Cassarino also points to the shortcomings of Frontex, the EU organization responsible for policing the European shores. Its biggest problem is that it is one dimensional -- it only coordinates with Europeans and isn't engaged in dialogue or shared policing with North African governments or NGOs. Even within Europe Frontex has been hobbled by European coordination issues. (It took a year to settle on Warsaw as a base for the organization.) Like most other European institutions and organizations, it did very little this summer as boat after boat slammed up against Spanish shores. Meanwhile, breaking that cycle -- of African poverty and politically fraught immigration -- will take more than a conference declaring that Europe's doors are closed.

Sarah Wildman is a Prospect senior correspondent.

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