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Europe's Immigration Challenge


Dramatic rises in numbers of illegal entrants

Over 15,000 illegal migrants were apprehended by coastguards as they tried to enter Greece by boat in 2008, up 65 per cent on the previous year. Over a 100,000 African immigrants have landed in the Spanish Canary Islands trying to gain access to the EU in the last few years.

In Italy, the number of illegal immigrants entering the country doubled in the first seven months of 2008 over 2007.

Spain, Portugal and Malta have all become similar targets. Approximately 1,000 migrants were picked up at sea when they landed in Malta between January and June 2006. Officials in Valletta compare this as the equivalent of 50,000 reaching Spain in the same time frame. The majority were attempting to reach Italy. This is the magnitude of the problem of illegal immigration in Malta where the population density is 1,200 per square kilometre, says Maltese Foreign Minister Michael Frendo.

Both Spain and Italy have faced major influxes of illegal immigrants. After announcing a new amnesty in July 2006 that it would grant citizenship to immigrants that could document they have stayed in Italy for five years, Italy has now implemented state of emergency measures.

More than 15,000 illegal immigrants entered the EU via Italy between January and July 2008. The figures come in spite of a government crackdown on crime and an increase in the number of deportations. Many arrive on boats organised by people traffickers. Most come across the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa. Once ashore they hope to take advantage of the Shengen zone’s open borders within the EU and locate work.

Italy's crackdown on crime and immigration

Italy’s crackdown on crime has seen stringent new measures introduced, making it an offence punishable by up to four years jail to enter the country illegally. A decree allows the government to deploy soldiers to several cities in an effort to control crime. Property rented to illegal immigrants can be confiscated under the new legislation.

The Italian authorities, like others in Europe, often find the countries of origin of illegal arrivals are reluctant to accept them back if they are deported. Italy's prisons are already crammed with foreigners. Some 20,000 people out of the 55,000 prisoners currently serving sentences or awaiting trial in Italian jails are foreigners. The number of foreign prisoners continues to increase because of difficulties carrying through expulsions ordered by the judiciary.

Between 600,000 non-EU citizens are currently living illegally in the country according to Italy's three largest labor unions CGIL, CISL and UIL and 800,000, according to the research institute Eurispes’s annual report on immigration.

Both Italy and Greece had unemployment rates of around 11 per cent in 1999, while Spain’s unemployment rate exceeded 15 per cent in the same year. Nevertheless, Italy has admitted over 2.5 million, Spain about 2.5 million and Greece nearly 1.5 million immigrant workers in the last 15 to 20 years.

Five amnesties have taken place in Italy since 1986, involving more than two million immigrants; four in Greece, four in Portugal since 1992 and three in Spain. These amnesties confirm that such strategies do not solve in the long term the challenge of dealing with undocumented migration.*

Spain: Balancing rights

In Spain, where legal immigrants alone make up nearly 9 percent of the population, Prime Minister Zapatero surprised many at the start of his second term by directing an about-face of his administration's previously lenient immigration policies. In June 2008, just three years after authorizing a mass legalization of 750,000 undocumented workers, Mr. Zapatero expressed support for the EU's Return Directive – a policy that allows member states to hold undocumented migrants, including minors, for up to 18 months, and, if deported, ban them from returning. Faced with a 10.7 percent unemployment rate, Zapatero announced plans that would pay jobless immigrants to return to their home countries.

Zapatero's immigration policy has been criticised by immigrants-rights organisations. Antonio Abad, secretary-general of the Spanish Commission for Aid to Refugees points out that by increasing the monitoring of the Moroccan and Mauritanian coasts, Spanish authorities have compelled sub-Saharan migrants to begin their sea journey from points farther south, endangering themselves even further. "It takes the people who need the most protection and makes things even harder for them," he says. He also criticizes Zapatero's support for the Return Directive. "When you limit one person's rights, you limit all of society," he adds.

Senegal is becoming a jumping off point for many would be immigrants, smuggling them to the Canary Islands, where they move on to Spain and the EU. Stories of success are fuelling efforts to make the attempt. Senegalese fishermen, many out of work due to intensive foreign fishing in their waters, have found a lucrative new business in smuggling. In an economy where the local wage is approximately $80 USD a month, a boat owner can charge over 100 individuals $1,000 each to attempt the journey. Between January and June 2006 more than 10,000 made the attempt from Senegal to the Canaries.

The Aegean

With its beaches, and historical sites the Greek island of Patmos has long been a popular tourist destination. But recently the tiny Aegean island has drawn a new type of visitor to its shores.

Over 4,000 illegal immigrants arrived on the island in 2008. Municipal authorities have now said they will block their ports to would-be immigrants arriving from neighbouring Turkey, arguing that the unwanted visitors will exceed the number of permanent residents on the island.

The islands of Lesbos, Samos and Patmos have been besieged with almost daily boatloads of migrants, the largest influx being Iraqis, Afghans and Palestinians. Arrivals from Africa, mainly Somalia are increasing.

Athens has called on the European Union to establish a coastguard to halt the flood attempting to enter the 27- member bloc by sea. Greece is faced with monitoring 16,000 kilometers of coastline, the largest external sea border of any EU member state.

Last year Greece received 112,000 would-be immigrants, according to statistics from the Interior Ministry. Some end up staying in Greece while many more continue their journey westward. Clashes between illegal immigrants battling to sneak aboard ferries bound for Italy from the western Greek port of Patras have broken out on an almost daily basis, with hundreds of immigrants living in makeshift camps at the port.

However, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has said that asylum seekers face "undue hardships" in Greece, often lacking legal aid to ensure that their claims receive adequate scrutiny from the asylum authorities. The refugee agency has described Greece's recognition rate for refugees as "disturbingly low." The overall protection rate for refugees of all nationalities in 2006 was 1 per cent in Greece, compared to 45 per cent in Italy and 50 per cent in Sweden. Greece routinely arrests all illegal immigrants and asylum seekers found in its territory and detains them in reception centres for up to three months.

While initial problems with the flood of migrants from Africa and the Middle East centred on the Aegean islands, migrants are now causing problems in the capital. The historic centre of Athens has been riven by several street battles in recent months, involving rival groups from Afghanistan, Iraq and war-torn African countries often involved in dealing drugs and wielding axes and machetes.

"People are scared and depressed, it's getting worse," said Vassiliki Nikolakopoulou of the group, Panathinaia.

The top policy adviser for immigration issues at the Interior Ministry blames the influx of migrants. "Because of this phenomenon, we see more and more immigrants in central Athens trying to survive, often through illicit activities." Official, Patroklos Georgiadis, said that Greece supported the stricter line on immigration being promoted by the bloc's French presidency. "There will not be another wave of legalisation of immigrants in Greece in the near future," referring to the amnesty programs that have granted work and residence permits to some 500,000 migrants since 1997, most of them undocumented foreigners - at least half from Albania.


In Portugal thousands of immigrants from Brazil and former Portuguese colonies in Africa have been allowed to settle in Portugal, to boost the population from its current decline in numbers. This will lead to more immigrants accessing other EU countries.

EU:New rules for expelling undocumented immigrants

Last summer the European Parliament approved new rules for expelling undocumented immigrants, among them a provision allowing member nations to keep migrants in detention centres for up to 18 months. Foreigners who have been forcibly deported also face a five-year ban on re-entering the European Union.

The measures met stiff opposition from liberal lawmakers and human rights groups, but aim to standardise rules for deporting immigrants, which vary widely across the 27-nation bloc. Under the terms, EU countries are required to give illegal immigrants seven to 30 days to leave Europe after receiving deportation orders. Those who don't depart voluntarily, or who officials fear may go into hiding, can be detained for up to 18 months while awaiting removal to their home country or a third nation. This includes families and unaccompanied children, though EU nations are urged to detain minors only as a last resort.

Supporters contend the rules were needed to give weight to immigration laws but critics argue the EU measure will erode humanitarian standards in Europe.

A Swedish Dilemma

Immigration has also had a big impact on Sweden. For some time, the government has been concerned about unemployment levels among the foreign born as compared to natives of the country, higher levels of social-welfare dependency, school dropouts and crime. Although Sweden does not require potential citizens to pass a language test, immigrants who have been sentenced to prison for a criminal offence are not allowed to naturalise.

In an article ‘Immigration and the welfare state’, Christopher Caldwell of the Swedish ‘Weekly Standard’ in February 2005 reported that in the last two decades, Malmö has acquired a population that is almost 40 percent foreign. Most of the students in its schools are of foreign parentage. Some immigrant neighborhoods in the city have unemployment rates exceeding 50 percent. Crime is high.

Sweden has become as heavily populated by minorities as any country in Europe. Of 9 million Swedes, roughly 1,080,000 are foreign-born. There are around 900,000 children of immigrants, between 60,000 and 100,000 illegal immigrants, and 40,000 more asylum-seekers awaiting clearance. The percentage of foreign-born is roughly equivalent to the highest percentage of immigrants the United States ever had in its history (on the eve of World War I).

Modern Sweden has built its sense of identity on two pillars: its generous welfare state and its status as a "moral superpower”. Indications are that the latter achievement is in the process of destroying the former, says Caldwell. It married solidarity to prosperity. This prosperity spurred a generosity towards the Third World that along with the generous welfare system helps explain how cities like Malmö became a magnet for immigration.

The Rosengard housing project in Malmo turned into a problem almost as soon as it was built. Today the windblown courtyards, convenience stores, and halal butchers are filled with heavily veiled women pushing baby carriages.

Swedes are looking at their neighbours. They see that Finland's tight immigration policies have resulted in lower social burdens. But it is to Denmark that Swedes have looked with most anxiety. There, the rise of the Danish People's party has succeeded in winning passage of Europe's most stringent laws on immigration. Denmark now restricts asylum admissions, welfare payments, and citizenship and residency permits for reasons of family unification. Denmark's crackdown has left Swedes wondering what is to stop many more in the E.U. from coming to their generous welfare state.

In 2008, net immigration into Sweden reached record levels, with more than 100,000 people entering the country and projections that the foreign-born population will reach 14 percent by the end of the year.


In neighbouring Norway the number of people applying for asylum has more than doubled in 2008 putting huge pressure on the immigration agency UDI. As many as 60 new asylum seekers are arriving in Norway every day, and the UDI predicts 2008 will show a total of nearly 15,000. Asylum was granted to just over 40 percent of the applicants. UDI has asked all of Norway's mayors how they can help accommodate the influx. Initially, many immigrants settled in East Oslo, but social pressures have resulted in the Government introducing a dispersal policy to other areas of Norway. It is common now to see burka-clad women on the streets of remote fiord towns.


Britain too has long been a magnet for immigrants attracted by existing large immigrant communities in the country, easy access to welfare and housing and the government’s poor rate of removals of those refused permission to stay. The notorious Sangattte camp near Calais for years acted as magnet for illegals seeking to board ferries to the UK and claim asylum rather than elsewhere in the EU. Since Labour came to power in 1997, government statistics show the number of foreign nationals given UK passports has soared with 84 per cent of immigrants coming from outside the EU. By 2051 the Government Actuary’s Department estimated the UK’s population could rise from the current 62 million to over 90 million, 70 per cent of this due to inward migration.

Net immigration topped 300,000 in 2006, three times the average figure in the mid-'90s—a level "unprecedented in our history," according to a parliamentary inquiry in 2008. With the exception of the United States, Britain took in more immigrants in 2006 than any of the world's leading economies, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Add to this an unknown number of illegal immigrants who arrive each year, with an estimated 600,000 already living in the UK.

Many other west European member states now have significant immigrant populations, notably France, with its legacy of former African colonies. In November 2006 the Dutch parliament voted to allow over 30,000 asylum seekers who arrived in Holland before April 2001, to remain in the country. The country has one of the largest Muslim populations in Western Europe, after France. In Ireland, the second largest foreign group receiving free state accommodation are now Nigerians, according to the Irish Statistics Office 2006 census. However, Eastern EU countries still remain largely untargeted by immigration. Welfare payments are much less attractive and there are no significant immigrant communities to provide support

The safety valve of migration is part of our collective history, but large-scale migration now raises vital social, environmental and economic questions about where the world is going and how we deliver reform and a better life for people wherever they are born. (2,364 words)

*European Immigration: A Sourcebook Published: December 2007 ISBN: 978-0-7546-4894-9. Price: £75.00 Edited by Anna Triandafyllidou, Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy.



Great, detailed article. To get a greater feel for the numbers I would like readers to be aware of the difference in permanency provisions in different countries. In Australia 'permanent immigration' means 'permanent, lifetime', but in Europe, it usually means for up to one year and, in Germany, up to three months. Permanency in the European Union countries can only be achieved through naturalisation. It would be useful to know what the rate of 'naturalisation' i.e. 'permanency' is in the non-EU European countries.

And, where unnaturalised immigrants have children, in which countries do and don't those children automatically become nationals?

Also, the info here on Portugal is very interesting. Portugal was, I think, like the English speaking states including Britain, much influenced by a male primogeniture, which increases tendencies to aggregate land and then to speculate on it in the presence of population pressure. I wonder if this is a part of what is operating in Portugal - land speculation.

Sheila Newman, population sociologist
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Copyright to the author. Please contact sheila [AT] candobetter org or the editor if you wish to make substantial reproduction or republish.

If you look at how much money they're costing us each year ( does a good job of outlining all the other costs, some of which are coming from very credible sources) and the effect that it's having on our own legal citizens and our own struggling economy, I think you might reconsider. This is why as draconian as the new law in Arizona seems, I think that it is completely necessary. It's a step backwards in some ways, yes, but I honestly don't see any other way of getting illegals out of the country. Simply asking them won't work, so I don't see any other way of getting them to leave short of a holocaust style roundup. And no, I'm not racist, it's just that there's no other semi-civil way to do this. I honestly don't know why the Hispanic community is complaining so much though... in WWII my grandpa who lived in Hawaii was thrown in an internment camp and all of his land was confiscated (which he never got back after the war) and he WAS legal. Yea he was bitter, but he didn't complain about it half as much as all these illegals are about the country enforcing a law. If you have so much anxiety about being pulled over and getting deported, you should at least try riding a bike or walking (since you don't even have a license to begin with if you're illegal). I realize that the economy is dependent upon the amazing savings that can be made by hiring illegal workers, but the problem I have with them being here is that they are confined to only the bottom tiers of America's society. And no, I'm not talking about Mexicans in general, because a lot of them are moving up in society - I'm referring to illegals, whom will prob never get a soc sec #, and will thus be stuck in their existence of ridiculously underpaid manual labor. By having illegals in this country, we're essentially perpetuating a class of slavery, whereas in Mexico, they would have chances to progress since they are actual citizens there (considering that Mexico undergoes major changes in its, er, "management." Besides, this might sound a bit racist to you, but I live in Santa Ana, CA (a VERY latino community in case you didn’t know) and my house has been broken into twice by mexicans over the last 3 years. I posted pics of them (adt security systems pics) taken from my surveillance camera, although they were never caught and charged (kind of a waste of money getting that security system installed, but I’ll save that for another day…). Now I’m not saying that all Mexicans are burglars and thieves… hell, if I was in their situation stuck in a racist country like ours, I would be doing the same thing.