EU nations open migration patrols in Mediterranean
MADRID Ships from five European nations have begun patrolling the Mediterranean in an attempt to control the rising tide of foreign immigrants trying to enter Europe illegally.
The Spanish interior minister, Angel Acebes, on Tuesday formally began "Operation Ulysses," under which ships from Spain, Britain, France, Italy and Portugal are patrolling sections of Europe's Mediterranean coastline with the aim of detaining and deterring the hundreds of small, overloaded boats that head north from the African coast.
It is the first time that EU members, who are supposed to harmonize policies on all aspects of migration, including repatriation and asylum, have worked together in this way.
At present, the handling of legal and illegal immigration varies widely across the Union. The coordinated effort to clamp down on illegal immigrants and the mafias who make money from their plight, was proposed at the EU summit meeting in Seville last year that addressed the issue of illegal immigration into the Union.
It "could be and should be" the precursor to a common European Border Police, Acebes said in the port of Palma de Mallorca. "We are in at the birth of a common EU police force."
Spain and Italy are the chosen destination for many boatloads of would-be immigrants desperate to start a new life in the EU, but the issue of undocumented migrants extends beyond the Mediterranean countries.
"Immigration is a problem for the whole of the EU," said a British spokesman. "It is seen as a problem we have to face together."
The first phase of this pilot project, patrols stretching from the Spanish port of Algeciras, at the mouth of the Mediterranean, to the Sicilian capital, Palermo, is to end on Feb. 8. A second, to start next month, will focus on the Atlantic waters around Spain's Canary Islands.
In the past few years, migrants put off by Spain's increased security measures along the 14-kilometer-wide Strait of Gibraltar have braved the far longer journey east from Morocco to the Canaries. Both routes have proved treacherous - this year alone, at least 20 people are thought to have drowned while trying to reach Spain.
The number of immigrants detained in the Canaries has almost quadrupled in two years, from 2,410 in 2000 to 9,756 in 2002. Last year Spain deported 74,467 foreigners, of whom 23,381 were Moroccan and 18,865 Romanian, a rise of 58 percent on the figures for 2001. The Interior Ministry says it broke up 735 trafficking rings in 2002, compared to 362 the year before.
The police detected more than 1,000 boats arriving clandestinely and arrested 16,504 would-be migrants.
Although the EU has an aging population and many nations need immigrant workers, the accession of new East European states is expected to swell the labor force. Senior Spanish officials have blamed immigration for the recent rise in unemployment, but admit they need foreigners to compensate for one of the world's lowest birth-rate.
"We need to be generous with legal immigration, but very firm" with illegal immigration and "stop the traffickers in human beings," Acebes said.
Anti-immigrant parties are winning political support in Europe. In Spain, where the center-right government blames immigrants for rising crime, increasing numbers of Spaniards oppose more immigration. Groups working with migrants in Spain say that it is extremely difficult for many migrants, especially from Africa, to enter Spain legally, and that EU governments should do more to improve legal channels and assist integration of foreign workers.