VARIOUS / FILE: EU ministers to talk about explosive issue of immigration at Stockholm meeting
- Title: VARIOUS / FILE: EU ministers to talk about explosive issue of immigration at Stockholm meeting
- Date: 15th July 2009
- Summary: CRETE, GREECE (RECENT) (REUTERS) CARGO SHIP CARRYING MIGRANTS ANCHORED OFF SHORE AFTER BEING CAPTURED BY COAST GUARD MIGRANTS COMING DOWN OFF SHIP MIGRANTS GETTING INTO COAST GUARD'S DINGHY COAST GUARD ON SHIP DIRECTING MIGRANTS MIGRANTS JUMPING OFF DINGHY ONTO SHORE COAST GUARD SEARCHING MIGRANT MIGRANTS SITTING ON BEACH WRAPPED IN BLANKETS ATHENS, GREECE (RECENT-JULY 10, 2009) (REUTERS) (SOUNDBITE) (English) BRIGADIER GENERAL VASSILIS KOUSOUTIS, MINISTRY OF THE INTERIOR, IMMIGRATION SECTION, SAYING: "It is one of the main problems because if Turkey was cooperating in re-admitting the illegal migrants coming from their own territory, transiting, our efforts for tackling this illegal migration phenomenon would have been much more easier and more effective."
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- Topics: International Relations,Social Services / Welfare
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- Story Text: The Swedish presidency of the European Union says it will make immigration a priority during its six month term and informal talks in Stockholm on Wednesday and Thursday (July 15 - 16) are intended to lay the basis of an action plan due to be adopted by the end of the year.
The United Nations refugee agency said recently that Sweden should ensure the European Union offers protection and a fair chance to asylum seekers and said some states, including Italy, had turned back African migrants without even considering their claims.
But several EU countries, including Greece, say EU action has been too slow in stemming an increasing flow of migrants that are putting further pressure on governments already struggling with an economic crisis, increased unemployment and rising support for anti-immigration far right groups.
Other countries, such as Cyprus and Malta, will want to see stronger commitments from EU member states to take on some of their migrants.
The EU agreed to help at the last June council but have been slow to commit. France said at the end of June it would take 100 asylum seekers from Malta to "send a message".
Malta is three times the size of Paris and receives asylum seekers from Nigeria, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia who end up in unsanitary, overcrowded camps.
Athens will be looking for support in pressuring Turkey to honour an agreement for the return of migrants arriving from the transit country to Greece's shores.
The European Union's eastern-most border is buckling under the weight of tens of thousands of asylum seekers crossing by land and sea from their neighbouring country, and Greece has appealed to the European Union for closer cooperation in handling the flow.
In 2008 - 82,000 migrants crossed by land, and 92,000 by sea. In the last two years migrants crossing into Greece accounted for almost 50 percent of the EU total.
According to a bilateral agreement signed in 2002 on the re-admission of immigrants, Greece has requested Turkey take back 67,352 people who crossed from there into Greece. Turkey has agreed to re-admit 7,975, but has so far taken only 2,278 back, according to the Greek Ministry of Interior.
Interior Ministry officials said if Turkey complied with the pact it would be a disincentive to other migrants attempting to cross.
"It is one of the main problems because if Turkey was cooperating in re-admitting the illegal immigrants coming from their own territory, transiting, our efforts for tackling this illegal immigration phenomenon would have been much easier and more effective," said Brigadier General Vassilis Kousoutis from the Immigration Section of the Ministry of Interior.
Since 2008, the EU has promoted schemes to take on seasonal workers in an effort to stop migrants entering illegally and to control the length of their stay.
Limited forces from the EU's border security agency Frontex have also been operating both on the land and sea borders to further assist local authorities. But Greece says Frontex needs more funding and a clearer mandate.
In 2007, former European Commissioner for Justice Franco Frattini said member states were trying, but not doing enough.
"Now you can see Greece, not only Malta, there is also a boat will come from Spain, two helicopters from Germany and of course a plane from Italy. There is, step by step, an increasing number of states that decided to join. But it's not enough. It's not enough," Frattini said.
Two years later the new EU Commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs Jacques Barrot visited migrant reception centres Samos and Evros where he was forced to admit that the problem in Greece was getting worse.
Migration increased 30 percent from 2007 to 2008, with 300-500 asylum seekers being arrested on the borders each day.
Migrant reception centres on islands such as Samos and Lesbos, and at the Greek-Turkish border region of Evros, have been overwhelmed, putting a strain on local authorities and drawing criticism from human rights groups of overcrowding, inadequate care, and unsanitary conditions.
During his visit Barrot said the issue risked sparking instability and called on Turkey to do its part and honour re-admittance contracts.
"Of course, I want the Greek government to make efforts, I want the Greek people to be faithful to their values and make the effort to welcome them but, as a counter balance, I also want to give Greece the support she needs," Barrot said.
The number of those granted asylum is low in Greece, but officials say it is because migrants abuse the process and many prefer to seek asylum upon reaching a different EU country.
The immigration issue has raised tensions in Athens, where many migrants converge, living in filthy, overcrowded conditions, sometimes breeding criminal activity and putting them in the front-line of racist attacks. They also face harassment by police.
Migrants in the capital have faced a backlash from extreme right nationalist groups and residents, who say neighbourhoods have turned into ghettos that are hotbeds of crime.
In May, an extreme right wing organisation attacked an abandoned building where migrants were squatting and an attempt was made to set fire to a basement used as a makeshift mosque.
The government has started police sweeps in neighbourhoods and in a squatters' camp in Patras, as part of new measures to tackle the influx - measures which will include gathering and moving migrants into large reception centres in abandoned warehouses or military bases around the country, extending the detainment of migrants from three to 12 months, and imposing criminal charges on traffickers. It is also appealing to countries of origin to better cooperate in providing the documentation needed to deport the migrants.
Human rights and immigrants' groups have criticised the measures and staged demonstrations against them, calling them racist.
Both groups argue that the legalisation of the migrants and granting more political asylum applications will curb any criminal activity and help to better integrate them into society, as opposed to mass deportations.
"We just need our papers, our rights here, we don't need anything, we are not doing anything wrong," said Jennifer Adjei from Ghana during a protest rally this month.
But Government authorities have said that Greece is already struggling with high unemployment, and is unable to provide jobs for so many immigrants.
A recent poll by local Greek newspaper Kathimerini showed that 93 percent of the public believed Greece had reached its limit on the number of migrants it could take in, while 76 percent believed immigration caused a rise in the crime rate.
The poll also showed that 72 percent felt Government measures to tackle the problem were not enough. At the same time, 87 percent believed migrants should have the same health and education rights as regular citizens.
Italy's parliament adopted a security package at the beginning of the month which included automatic rules of expulsion, 3-year imprisonment for renting accommodation to illegal immigrants as well as authorising citizens' patrols, described as 'vigilante groups' by critics, intended to strengthen security.
The EU said it would probe Italy's new legislation saying "automatic expulsion rules for entire categories are not acceptable". But it will have to act fast if it intends to avoid individual member states taking draconian measures to crack down on what they see as a destabilising force threatening their leadership.
And the rise of far-right parties in the European parliament indicates that pressure at home could override any EU concerns over human and civil rights.
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