BERLIN — As conflicts worsen in the Middle East and North Africa, immigrants from those regions increasingly are embarking for Europe in search of better lives. Many never reach their destinations.
About 1,600 immigrants have died in the past three months en route to Europe, bringing the total to nearly 2,000 this year alone, the U.N. Committee for Human Rights said in August. At least 700 more are feared drowned in a shipwreck off the coast of Libya in September, according to the International Organization for Migration.
“By now the EU is the deadliest border on earth,” said Henk van Houtum, head of the Nijmegen Centre for Border Research at Radboud University in the Netherlands. “Undocumented migrants are entering in increasingly dangerous ways. Many illegal migrants have died on their way to the EU — more than 23,000 since 1993.”
The fatalities are the most visible dimension of the EU’s immigration problem. But they aren’t the only problem: Immigrants who reach the continent pose other challenges that are pitting European countries against each other.
Most of Europe’s immigrants are heading to prosperous EU member states like Germany or Sweden, where jobs and social welfare benefits are plentiful. But according to EU laws, those who survive the perilous journey across the Mediterranean or through the Middle East and Turkey must remain in the country where they first entered Europe.
That means many immigrants are stuck in economically struggling border countries like Bulgaria, Italy and Spain that don’t have the resources to accommodate them. Many immigrants wind up living in dismal tent cities and subsisting on aid from governments and aid organizations.
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Southern European countries are asking the rest of Europe for help in processing refugees who arrived on their shores but never intended to stay.
“Countries on the Mediterranean recognize the particular challenges that come with the search and rescue of spontaneous arrivals across the sea,” said Elizabeth Collett, a Brussels-based analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. “They would like other member states to help them with the asylum processing.”
Italy, for instance, is spending $17 million a month on ships, helicopters, housing and other measures to accommodate a 700 percent increase in immigrants compared to last year.
At the same time, however, Germany, Sweden and other Scandinavian countries accept a disproportionate amount of asylum-seekers in Europe who have fled political repression and violence.
According to Eurostat, Germany reported the highest number of asylum applicants last year — 127,000 — nearly double the number in France, which had over 66,000. Sweden just had over 54,000, while the United Kingdom had almost 30,000.
But getting EU members to agree on a common policy has been a thorny problem, Ms. Collett says.
The EU has appropriated $4 billion over the next six years to help member states handle the influx. But that funding won’t be enough if Brussels does not commit to embracing an EU-wide immigration policy, analysts say.
European leaders have not changed EU rules to allow asylum-seekers and refugees to move more freely within the EU, for example, a change that would redistribute their numbers throughout the continent.
“We effectively have the vaguest set of commitments they could possibly make,” said Ms. Collett. “Because anything more specific became too contentious.”
Instead, European leaders focus on border security.
“It is easier for European governments to collaborate on areas where specifically there is a security imperative,” Ms. Collett said. “Border management seems to be progressing faster than the other issues, such as legal migration and asylum. Member states can see the advantages of collaborating on border management, but can’t necessarily see the same advantages in collaborating on asylum.”
The choice of Greek Defense Minister Dimitris Avramopoulos to replace current EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom, a Swede, in December signals the EU’s hardening stance, said James Hampshire, a politics lecturer at the Sussex Centre for Migration Research at the University of Sussex.
“The fact that he is a defense minister suggests that the commission wants to project a ‘tough’ approach to the issues of border control and irregular migration,” said Mr. Hampshire.
But increasing security on the border won’t stem immigration, said Mr. Van Houtum of Radboud University. Instead, it will likely result in more deaths as immigrants take bigger risks to reach Europe. Expanding legal immigration would be better because it would at least give authorities an opportunity to control how the immigrants enter the EU.
“People from countries like Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia almost have no possibility to travel legally to the EU, and often see no other option then to enter illegally,” said Mr. Van Houtum.
But liberalizing EU immigration policy is unlikely, said Steven Peers, a professor of EU law and human rights at the University of Essex in Britain.
“There are only a few people who would shrug off the loss of life and be indifferent to it, but at the same time, I think most people would like to save all those lives without having any extra immigrants,” Mr. Peers said. “That’s the problem politicians have: knowing that is where a lot of public opinion stands.”
The rise of extreme right-wing, anti-immigration parties in Europe signals voters’ wariness toward immigration. The European Parliament has 52 far-right lawmakers — a record in its history.
They include France’s National Front, the United Kingdom’s Independence Party (UKIP) as well as neo-Nazi groups like Germany’s National Democratic Party and Greece’s Golden Dawn.
“You also see that to some extent in the Netherlands and in Italy,” said Mr. Peers. “There are clear signs, particularly in France, that the more mainstream parties are trying to hold on to their votes by [taking] a more hard-liner stance on immigration.”
The climate has spread to other issues that, strictly speaking, don’t involve immigrants, like tightening visa requirements for university students.
“Students bring a lot of benefit — according to most studies, they spend money and go back usually,” said Mr. Peers. “But even with this less controversial area of immigration, member states want the power to maintain strict controls.”
Ms. Collett said the EU is going to have to resolve its immigration issues sooner rather than later. Given the turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East, the flood of people seeking the peace and tranquility of the continent isn’t going to stop anytime soon.
“All policymakers understand there is an urgency in resolving these issues, not only because the numbers across the Mediterranean are rising sharply, but also because there are proliferating humanitarian situations in the neighborhood of Europe,” she said.