EU Considers Options For Curbing Flood Of Illegal Immigrants

By Maria Kalafati | July 7, 2008 | 8:11 PM EDT

Athens, Greece ( - European Union leaders have rejected the idea of a European-wide border police force to curb illegal immigration.

But they did agree to have the chiefs of their border police meet regularly, and they promised "joint operations" on EU borders.

Meeting in Spain, the member states also agreed to coordinate their requirements for asylum and their treatment of asylum-seekers. They hope uniform standards will prevent refugees from "shopping around" in various European countries in search of the best "deal" for themselves.

Britain, Italy, Spain, Denmark and Germany proposed using foreign development aid as a tool to pressure refugees' countries of origin to crack down on illegal migration and to take unsuccessful asylum-seekers back again if EU countries repatriated them.

The suggestion, coming from some of the countries hardest hit by an influx of illegal immigrants, was rejected.

"We cannot allow the question of public security to take a back seat, but illegal immigration is an important issue and we have to find a proper solution," said EU Commission president Romano Prodi.

Immigration has become a burning issue in Europe, with far-right political parties in France, the Netherlands and Britain exploiting anti-foreigner sentiment among voters.

Others, like Greece and Italy, are also struggling with an increasing flow of asylum-seekers, many of them fleeing homelands in the Middle East and western Asia for better economic prospects in the West.

Greece, a country with a population of 10 million, warned that it was close to bursting and could not take in any more migrants.

The country faces an increased wave of illegal immigration across its eastern border, and it accuses neighboring Turkey of failing to honor bilateral agreements on stemming the flow.

"For the next few years, Greece will not be able to absorb more economic immigrants," Greek Public Order Minister Michalis Chrysochoidis told a newspaper this week.

"An exception will be made, of course, for those who are persecuted for their beliefs. But at this point, 700,000 legal immigrants are living in our country. There is no longer any space for more."

Between 1995 and 2000, the number of people Turkish security forces have detained for illegal residence or transit has climbed almost nine-fold, from 11,400 a year to 94,500, before dropping slightly last year to 92,400.

"It's the easiest way into Europe," said a Turk official of the route from his country into Greece.

"In 1995, I thought the visa restrictions imposed by European countries would slow the movement," he added. "But the opposite happened, because it is easy to enter Turkey and then to leave for Europe."

"The number of illegal immigrants has increased and the list of countries they come from has diversified with the arrival of people from countries in Asia or Africa," he said.

During economic crises in the mid-1970s, most European governments introduced "zero immigration" policies to curb migration after three decades of recruiting foreign workers, many from former colonies.

Since then, the main routes for legal migration into the West have been through the asylum systems, family reunions or marriage.

According to the International Organization for Migration, net immigration into the EU in 2000 (the most recent figures available) was some 680,000 people. The EU's total population is 375 million.

Recent crackdowns on illegal migrants at European airports and shipping container terminals have revealed a rise in the influx of clandestine refugees.

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