African Deaths Spark Debate In Europe Over Immigration

By Marc Perelman

Published October 14, 2005, issue of October 14, 2005.
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Europe has been plunged into a furious new debate over immigration policies and the effects of global poverty, after being stunned by scenes of desperate Africans trying to overrun a barbed-wire fence to reach European territory.

On two occasions in the past two weeks, groups of hundreds of Africans tried to storm the razor-wire fences separating Morocco from two Spanish enclaves on the African mainland in hopes of reaching European Union soil. At least 14 people were killed, most by gunfire from security forces. Dozens more were hurt in the crush against the razor-sharp 10-foot fence.

Morocco this week began an unprecedented sweep of migrant gathering points near the coast, expelling hundreds to Senegal, Mali and Algeria. While several hundred have been deported by plane, hundreds more, including women and children, supposedly were driven from the border area into the surrounding desert and then abandoned.

The incidents, largely ignored in the American media but widely covered in Europe, have ignited a round of finger-pointing between Spain and Morocco over who bears responsibility for the deaths. They also have prompted an outcry from humanitarian organizations that are protesting the treatment of the deportees.

More broadly, the incidents have touched off a firestorm of debate across Europe over the gaps and inconsistencies in the continent’s evolving patchwork immigration policy. And they have given new fuel to advocates of emergency efforts to fight poverty in Africa’s poorest countries, which hopefully will stem the growing tide of illegal migration.

“This is a problem much larger than Morocco. It is an international issue,” Andre Azoulay, a senior adviser to the king of Morocco, told the Forward in an interview. “It sheds light on the inability of the international community to anticipate such incidents. It’s just appalling.”

The brutal North-South confrontation between poverty and wealth is not only a European problem. A growing tide of migrants desperate to enter wealthier countries in search of work is resulting in a growing death toll each year on both sides of the Atlantic. Some 2,000 Africans are believed to drown in the Mediterranean each year while attempting illegal crossings to Europe. On the American-Mexican border, a record 464 migrants from Latin America died last year trying to enter this country.

On a political level, the toxic combination of swelling immigration, crime and high unemployment has propelled a growth of far-right parties in Europe. In America, a controversy has erupted over the creation of vigilante groups to patrol the border with Mexico. The Bush administration’s plan for slowing the tide, a proposed guest-worker program, is stalled in Congress.

The European Union has become a particular magnet for immigrants in recent years, after eliminating borders between its members and extending its reach into Eastern Europe. As rising immigration has prompted a political backlash, the E.U. has tightened controls at its external borders in such places as Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean coasts.

Ceuta and Melilla, the two Spanish enclaves in Morocco, have together become one of the most sensitive points along Europe’s border. As the only overland crossing between Africa and Europe, the enclaves are a magnet for a steady stream of young men from across Africa who make their way to Morocco in an attempt to enter Europe and find work.

Observers say the average age of would-be migrants has dropped substantially in recent years as a result of stricter E.U. rules governing the treatment of adults who manage to reach European soil. Growing numbers of migrants are now minors.

The current furor erupted September 29. A group of some 600 Africans rushed the fence at Ceuta, on Morocco’s northwest coast opposite Gibraltar. Five people died of gunshot wounds in the stampede. It remains unclear who fired the shots.

A second, larger stampede occurred a week later, on October 6, at the Melilla border, some 300 miles east near the Moroccan-Algerian border.

Some 3,000 migrants were said to have been living in a makeshift camp in Algeria, seeking a way into Melilla.

Since the stampede, Spain’s year-old Socialist government has come under fire from its conservative opposition, which claims that the deaths are a direct consequence of a decision this spring to legalize some 700,000 illegal immigrants. Last week, Spain reversed its policy of allowing illegal migrants to remain if they manage to cross into its African enclaves. Seventy of them were deported back to Morocco.

Both Spain and Morocco have claimed that they are unable to cope with the issue on their own.

For years, European officials have been pressuring their North African neighbors, especially Morocco and Libya, to rein in the flow of migrants from the continent. Human rights groups have complained that the resulting efforts, while largely failing to stem the migration, have effectively given a free hand to security forces known for their violent ways.

Last week, Morocco began deporting African migrants by bus and plane. As of this week, an estimated 1,000 had been removed.

The Moroccan sweep prompted sharp protests from human rights groups. Bernard Kouchner, a former French health minister and a founder of Doctors Without Borders, said in a radio interview last week that some 600 migrants were “left to die” in the desert without food or water.

Moroccan officials responded that they were not “Europe’s dustbin” and that they lacked means to implement measures demanded by the E.U.

“To criticize Morocco is an easy way for people to dissemble from their responsibilities,” said Azoulay, a leader of Morocco’s Jewish community and a longtime royal adviser on minority affairs and on human rights. “We sing the praise of globalization when it comes to goods and services. But when it comes to humans, rich countries end up building fortresses.”

Coincidentally, a new United Nations study on global migration was released last week, calling for improved international cooperation and greater respect for migrants’ rights. The Global Commission on International Migration, a panel of experts assembled by the U.N. two years ago, prepared the report.

The commission said that the annual number of international migrants had jumped from 75 million to 200 million over the past 30 years and had spread to all parts of the globe, a trend that is likely to continue. While acknowledging the right of states to control entry and the need to stem illegal immigration, the panel pointed to the economic value of migration for countries both of destination and of origin. It called for a truly international framework to better regulate it.

“No Western government succeeds at controlling economic migrations,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “The only solution is development in the poorest countries — but this is only in the long term, and if the West is serious about helping more.”

In West Africa, tens of millions of youths lack proper employment, driving them to undertake long and dangerous journeys to immigrate clandestinely to North America and Europe.

Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, special African envoy of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, told reporters Monday that the recent events were “insignificant compared to what we may be facing in a few years’ time.”

“I dread to think of the scenes we may be contemplating in, say, 20 years, if we do not make a massive, consolidated effort to create jobs and opportunities in West Africa,” he added.

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