Is Europe failing to deal humanely with illegal immigration?

4 March Print

Immigration is likely to be one of the key issues in the upcoming European elections in May (and you can show your support for the party whose policies on immigration you most agree with by taking part in our Debating Europe Vote 2014!).

Anti-immigration parties are polling well across Europe, and have been cheered by recent victories including the Swiss referendum on EU migration. However, immigration is a complex issue that is often over-simplified, with little distinction being drawn between legal and illegal immigration, asylum seekers and refugees, and migration between EU Member States.

Not long ago, we had a comment sent in from Cecilia arguing that the EU’s approach to illegal immigration in particular was failing both to be effective and humane:

The European Union [has spent a lot of money] but it has not brought any results. The only result obtained have been the creation of detention centres for illegal immigrants. These centres have been [criticised] for their conditions and the treatment of migrants, and are disrespectful of human rights.

Certainly, the countries on the front-line when it comes to illegal immigration are often the least-equipped to deal with the numbers involved. For example, Bulgaria (the poorest country in the European Union) found itself overwhelmed and unable to cope last year with the huge increase in the number of illegal immigrants fleeing the violence in Syria. Around 10,000 migrants arrived in Bulgaria in 2013, which is seven times the number that came in 2012. The Bulgarian government had basic facilities prepared for only half that number, leading to serious overcrowding and miserable conditions.

We recently spoke to Svetoslav Malinov, a Bulgarian Centre-Right MEP who has personally visited the refugee centres in Bulgaria, and asked him how he would respond to Cecilia’s comment:

[I visited the] refugee centres and camps in Bulgaria and, let me tell you honestly, I don’t think it will ever be as bad as it was last year for the Bulgarian authorities. I’m not afraid to say that we didn’t have any experience. Actually, we haven’t seen such numbers of illegal immigrants for decades, probably since before the Second World War, so there is nobody alive that has any memory of how to process so many people. Of course, that’s not an excuse for anything, because in spite of the warnings, the Bulgarian state – the legal services and everything on the ground actually – was not good enough.

What we saw [during our visit to the camps] is that, firstly, things are improving. And second, where the state was not very efficient, the citizens and civil society accommodated most of these people. I don’t want to even think about what would have happened if civil society and voluntary organisations had not been on the ground. So, that could be good or bad, depending on how you look at it, but definitely we have people who are ready to work and to help.

And, finally, I believe that Bulgaria, for the first time, is trying to have something like a national integration policy. Because, merely to have people on your territory – to give them housing, guarantee them some levels of hygiene and food and shelter – this is just the beginning of a very long process. After that, you have the legal problems, and then you have the integration problems, with the language issue, for example. So, we have to admit that we don’t have the experience, but we also need other countries to share their good practices with us.

And I believe that some EU countries are much more exposed to this kind of illegal immigration than others. Definitely, countries like Bulgaria, Greece, Cyprus, Italy and Malta are in geographical position that makes them more vulnerable, and we need solidarity between EU Member States to be better guaranteed by new laws and new practices at the European level…

Are EU countries failing to support one another sufficiently when it comes to illegal immigration? Are higher fences, bigger detention camps and more patrol boats the best way to deal with the issue? Or would that just turn us into “Fortress Europe” and lead to miserable conditions for refugees and migrants? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policy-makers and experts for their reactions.

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