Europe's Unwelcome Guests | The Nation


Europe's Unwelcome Guests

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The legal hurdles asylum seekers must clear to win recognition have also been pushed upward. In 1987 Britain allowed 80 percent of asylum applicants to remain; by 1996, the figure was down to 20 percent. Increasing numbers are refused on grounds of "noncompliance"--that is, for errors in filling out the long form that must be completed in English within ten working days of application, or failure to attend an interview many miles away. Since immigration officers are under pressure to reject as many applicants as possible, interviews become a cat-and-mouse game in which the officer tries to catch the petitioner in a lie while she streamlines her story to fit the requirements. The requirements themselves are difficult to fathom. "With regard to your final arrest," reads a letter of refusal sent recently to a Sudanese woman, "the secretary of state would point out that he does not condone such actions. However, he notes that your public flogging has occurred on only one occasion, and therefore he does not accept that this in itself would constitute persecution." "If Jesus Christ came to Britain," one immigration lawyer told me, "he would not be given asylum."

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Maria Margaronis
Maria Margaronis
Maria Margaronis writes from The Nation's London bureau. Her work has appeared in many other publications,...

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As there is no Europe-wide policy on asylum, there is also competition among European countries to be the least attractive destination for refugees, though few of them have the luxury of researching reception conditions before they set out. As any British tabloid reader knows, the Red Cross center at Sangatte on the north coast of France is a base for migrants who nightly try to penetrate the Channel Tunnel, rushing the high wire fences of the yards so they can cling to the sides of freight trains on their twenty-minute journey through the dark. At times, efforts to stop them have completely stalled goods traffic, costing the freight companies and the tunnel operators millions of pounds. The British have repeatedly demanded Sangatte's closure; the French reply (somewhat disingenuously) that it is there because it fills a need. In fact, each country is desperate to offload its asylum seekers onto its neighbors. When Le Pen disses Blair by threatening to put Sangatte's residents on a special train to London, he is voicing the unspoken wishes of many more temperate leaders.

In 1999 the EU resolved to legislate on immigration matters and affirmed, at least in theory, its commitment to the 1951 convention. So far, though, attempts to "harmonize" asylum practice have mainly produced new measures for policing the borders--a Europe-wide fingerprint base called Eurodac, fines for truck drivers who unwittingly bring in stowaways, penalties for facilitating illegal entry. Since September 11 antiterrorist legislation has further restricted asylum seekers' rights as security takes precedence over refugee protection.

None of this stops the migrants from hurling themselves at the gates. Their journeys are not undertaken lightly. Hundreds have died on their way to the West, suffocated in sealed containers or drowned in the Mediterranean. The pinched faces of Afghans reaching for food as their ship lists in a Greek harbor; the panic in Michael Lawal's voice calling from prison, where white inmates have attacked him with boiling water; the grief of a woman from Sierra Leone whose children are growing up without her while British officials delay applications for family reunion; the despair of a Somali man who has won refugee status to learn that his wife has given up waiting--all these represent an infinitesimal fraction of the misery involved in "irregular" migration.

The smugglers who both help and prey on migrants come in many forms. Gazmend Kapllani, an Albanian journalist in Athens, sketched out for me the hierarchy of local entrepreneurs who help his compatriots over the border, from the embassy official who will sell you a visa for 400,000 drachmas (about $1,100), to the "taxi driver" who has an understanding with a border official, to the humble guide who claims to know the mountain paths. For long-distance travel, the fees are much higher: perhaps $16,000 from Peshawar to London by air, $10,000 by land, including fake documents, nights on cold mountains and some months in an Istanbul sweatshop. In many areas, smuggling is run by organized criminal networks that have "diversified" from drugs to people. Tens of thousands of women (children, too) are smuggled and trapped into prostitution in Western Europe every year, mainly from the former Soviet Union. The International Organization for Migration reckons that 500,000 to a million people are trafficked in Europe annually. While Western governments rail against the smugglers' abuses, it is obvious that the aggressive tightening of immigration controls only expands the market for their services.

It is not always easy to untangle the reasons why people take such risks with their lives. The 1951 convention and other legal instruments rightly distinguish between those fleeing persecution and those migrating for economic reasons; without that bottom line, no protection for refugees would be possible. In practice, though, the line can be difficult to draw. An Afghan reduced to starvation by war, drought and economic collapse or a Somali fleeing banditry and famine after the civil war blur the boundaries and raise hard questions about the limits of the West's responsibility. Yonas and Michael may not be fleeing present persecution in the strictest sense, but their lives at home are ravaged beyond repair. In Afghanistan, people will sell all they have to send one son to the West, knowing that if he makes it, his remittances will change their future. According to the International Labor Organization, $73 billion is sent home each year by foreign workers worldwide, significantly more than the sum of aid from rich to poor countries. The rich world is the end point of journeys that can take many years and pass through several countries; often, a person's circumstances will have changed radically by the time he arrives. The decision about whether to seek asylum may also be circumstantial. For every "bogus" Albanian who has used false documents to gain admission as a Kosovar, there is a genuine refugee who has decided to take her chances as an undocumented worker rather than enter the asylum lottery.

All over Europe, migrant workers are filling jobs the "natives" no longer wish to do for the wages on offer. Nele Verbruggen of Picum, a Brussels information and organizing center for Europe's sans papiers, reckons that the Continent hosts well over 5 million undocumented workers. In Greece, Albanians and Bulgarians keep agriculture going and bathe the aged parents of middle-class Athenians. In Britain, nurses from Africa and the Philippines sustain the National Health Service. At El Ejido in southern Spain, 30,000 hectares of tomatoes and peppers are harvested by as many Moroccans, three-quarters of them illegal, who live in cardboard boxes and lean-tos made of garbage bags and corrugated tin. When the Moroccans began to organize after a Spanish pogrom against them two years ago, the farmers began to bring in Ecuadoreans, Lithuanians and Ukrainians to replace them. The nineteenth-century "California model" also has adherents in Switzerland, the Netherlands, Britain and the south of France.

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