The challenge of trans-Mediterranean migration

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Since the early 1980s, European Union Mediterranean member states–primarily Italy and Spain–have experienced growing migration pressure from the Maghreb: mainly from Morocco and, as far as Italy is concerned, also from Tunisia.

During the 1990s, Moroccans became by far the first foreign resident community both in the Iberian and in the Italian peninsulas. This was a "new wave" of emigration from the Maghreb, issuing from different areas than the older flows that affected France, Belgium and the Netherlands in the 1960s and 1970s. And it was a new emigration stream also in its social composition: younger, more urban, more educated, and with a growing share of female first migrants in it.

Since the turn of the century, some signs seem to suggest that direct migration pressure from the Maghreb to southern Europe has been mitigated. In the massive regularization program that was implemented by the Italian center-right government in 2002-2003, Eastern Europeans were largely predominant. Over a total of around 704,000 applications, the national communities with the highest regularization rate were Romanians, Ukrainians and Albanians. Moroccans, with “only” 54,221 applications, lost their traditional primacy as first immigrant group in the country.

The results of the Italian legalization scheme prove that the trend of unauthorized immigration from North Africa to Italy is stationary or slightly decreasing. This is due to a set of distinct causes: on the one hand, "pull factors" discriminate against Maghreb migrants, i.e., Italian illegal employers express a clear preference for European workers. But also "push factors" seem to be declining: the share of undocumented North Africans among the thousands who are apprehended annually on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa is low and decreasing. The majority of those who are smuggled nowadays across the Sicily Channel have transited through the Maghreb, but originate from Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent.

This relative reduction in direct migration pressure from the Maghreb is less evident in Spain, where the overall foreigners’ presence tripled in the last six years. But there also, the deterrent effect of the massive investment in border controls is starting to show. And in Spain also, the bilateral labor immigration agreements signed in 2002 with Poland and Romania, and in October 2003 with Bulgaria, reflect a diffuse preference for European workers, which is already affecting labor migration dynamics.

The years 2002 and 2003 marked an upsurge of Sub-Saharan (mostly Somalis and Liberians) and Middle Eastern nationals (predominantly Palestinians and Iraqis) apprehended upon disembarkation along southern Italian shores. A similar phenomenon can be observed along Spanish maritime borders and around the costly and anachronistic enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla.

After a decade of growing unrest in western Africa and of persisting instability in the Horn of Africa, and following the substantial progress in migration law enforcement in Turkey and the Balkans, the Maghreb emerged during the early 2000s as a key transit region for illegal flows aiming at the southern part of the EU. Routes are constantly changing and only partly known: Sudan is a crossroads for East Africans heading for Libyan harbors; migrants and refugees from the Guinea Gulf cross Mali and Niger and then either go north towards the Libyan smuggling district around Zuwarah, or they cut across the Algerian Hoggar region and then turn west, dreaming of finally landing in the Canary Islands.

Crossing the Sahara is turning into a huge, continental business. The extreme harshness of the climate and the lack of ordinary transport infrastructure make crossing the desert a difficult enterprise, which requires specialized help in loco. The steep increase in the demand is boosting a quick growth in transport services, catering and hostels for migrants. Old capitals of cross-Saharan trade, such as Agadez, Tombouctou and Tamanrasset are experiencing a revival and at times a real boom.

But there is a dark side in all this. As often migrants are unable to pay for the services they need, they are frequently trapped into forced labor and sexual exploitation. Along migration routes, corruption circuits are expanding, thereby undermining the already very poor democratization record of the region. Old sets of prejudices, suspicions and fears of Arabs against "black" Africans, and the other way around, threaten to reactivate. The number of direct victims of this new continental smuggling market is unknown but certainly thirst, fatigue, illnesses, accidents and bandits kill thousands.

Europe is facing all this, and is so far unable to respond consistently. On the one hand, EU governments and common institutions ask our Mediterranean partners to do their part in migration law enforcement. Morocco was recently granted EUR 50 million to upgrade its border control infrastructure. Similar actions are highly prioritized within the framework of the new EUR 250 million program for financial and technical assistance to third countries in the field of migration and asylum, approved by the EU Council on February 19, 2004. The need to ensure greater cooperation by the Libyan authorities against human smuggling was an important factor behind the lobbying that some European governments and the European Commission carried out in favor of lifting the UN embargo.

But Europe is not asking itself what such cooperation in the field of migration control implies. Brussels and the other EU capitals are not assessing the impact of such cooperation on overall compliance with international obligations in the field of asylum. They are not ensuring that Tunisian police or Libyan troops are properly trained to safeguard the fundamental rights of migrants, such as the EU acquis imposes on eastern candidates and new member states. The problematic link between migration control and the rule of law is dismissed. The new migration conditionality threatens to eclipse an already weak political conditionality.

These crucial contradictions need to be openly faced and gradually solved, through dialogue (not only Euro-Mediterranean, but Euro-African as well), but also through courageous and consistent policy choices. Otherwise, our Mediterranean partners will resemble more and more some indispensable but embarrassing gate-keepers, rather than the good and equal neighbors with whom we wish to share "all but institutions".

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