Migration within the Mediterranean basin is a long-established phenomenon with deep historical and socio-political implications. For some time now, the Mediterranean has been characterized as Europe's "Rio Grande." Like the famous river that many poor Mexicans cross to reach the wealthy United States, the Mediterranean Sea divides prosperous aging Europe from a highly populated, youthful, and economically underdeveloped North Africa.
More recently, the reality has become far more complex, for a variety of reasons. First, the geopolitical landscape has changed, with the opening up of Albania and other former communist countries since 1991, and now the inclusion of Cyprus and Malta in the European Union (EU). Second, traditional regional migrations within the Mediterranean basin have been almost overtaken by the use of North Africa, Turkey, and Balkan countries as transit zones for more globalized migrations. Third, the Southern European countries of Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Greece (and now Malta and Cyprus) have had to reconcile two apparently contradictory factors. First, they have obligations to adopt strict immigration controls, measures for the detection and expulsion of illegal migrants, and other common procedures under both EU rules and the Schengen Treaty. Second, they must cope with their economic attractiveness to migrants and general bureaucratic incapacity to regulate efficiently.
The interaction of these phenomena, along with the somewhat conservative attitude towards change of most Mediterranean societies, has proven difficult to handle and policies have tended toward volatility, little or no evaluation of outcomes, and changes aligned with the ideological orientations of policymakers.
In this context, recent changes in EU policy on border and external relations have impelled Southern European countries on a path of increasingly restrictive immigration policies. The key strategies underpinning these policy shifts are bilateral cooperation to control coastal areas and land borders; the signing and effective implementation of "readmission agreements" with non-EU countries of transit to regulate the involuntary return of unauthorized migrants; and encouraging the construction of immigration controls in neighboring non-EU countries.
Understanding the changing mosaic of Mediterranean migrations requires looking at the region from several perspectives: the composition of new immigrant populations, the policies recently developed to deal with them, the current dilemmas facing policymakers, and regional efforts to cooperate on migration issues.
New Immigrant Populations
Official data on legal migrants in the Mediterranean region, especially those of Italy and Greece, are often characterized by low-quality and delayed compilation. However, even with these caveats, some recent changes can be discerned in the data now available.
Although specific sending countries are still key for each of these EU states (Moroccans in Spain and Italy, Brazilians in Portugal, Albanians in Greece), a picture is emerging of increasingly diverse immigration sources, with notable increases in Chinese and other Asian migrations. Furthermore, although the proportion of legal residents is quite low in all four countries, the combined presence of legal, illegal, semi-legal, and seasonal migrants in all of them is fairly large—perhaps even exceeding 10 percent of the labor force.
New Immigration Policies
By the late 1990s, Portugal, Spain, and Italy had started to emerge from a difficult learning process over the previous decade, and had embarked on new policies designed to minimize their unauthorized populations and simultaneously restrict future illegal migrations. These effective management strategies included:
It is extremely difficult to comment on the effects of these policies, as most were repealed without time for evaluation or serious study.
Subsequent changes in government parties (and of the ideology within that political elite), as well as pressure from within the EU to adopt more restrictive strategies, led to a series of policy changes that foster rather than limit illegal immigration. Thus, a more or less common immigration policy has emerged in Southern Europe, with the following characteristics:
Although with variations, immigration policy in Southern Europe is converging toward a more restrictive approach. This is best exemplified by Greece's policy since 1991, when that country passed its first immigration law since 1929. This aligned Greek immigration controls with Schengen, introducing stricter border controls as well as internal measures such as detection and mass expulsions of illegal immigrants, but made no realistic provision for legal immigration channels or the lawful employment of immigrants. The principal effect of this has been to discourage legal immigration and force many legalized immigrants back to illegal status, as well as promoting their participation in the "black economy."
This apparent counter-productiveness stems from several factors. First, the recruitment of migrants from abroad is excessively bureaucratic, putting far too great a burden on employers while theoretically offering them employees they have never met. (In practice, this is a fake procedure, because the immigrants are recruited while in the country illegally, then leave to take the necessary documents from their foreign consulate.) Second, the short duration of residence and/or work permits means that they must be renewed almost continuously, and this pushes many immigrants back into illegality through their uncertain employment situation. Finally, more aggressive policing reinforces the duality of legal/illegal status, and again pushes immigrants into precarious situations.
One measure to limit illegal immigration that has scarcely been used in the Southern European context is sanctions on employers who willfully hire unauthorized immigrants. Portugal did implement this policy but with limited results, as some 65 percent of the employers who were fined refused to pay. It is not clear that the Southern European states have the capacity to enforce such measures.
Current Dilemmas for Policymakers
Illegal migration, along with overstaying on tourist and other visas, continues to be a significant problem in the Mediterranean region. Key facets of this problem include:
The thorniest of these issues is that of the "boat migrants." The numbers are small as far as interceptions are concerned—for 2003, some 14,000 by Italy; 11,000 by Spain (a total of 77,000 including land borders); and about 4,000 by Greece in 2002. The primary points of entry across Southern Europe are small Greek Aegean islands close to Turkey, as well as Crete; the Italian islands of Sicily, Pantellenia, and Lampedusa; and the Canary Islands (Spain). The current favored destination seems to be the Canary Islands, although Malta and Cyprus are now also significant destinations. The Maltese coastguard captured 1,700 illegal migrants in 2003, and there are reported Italian claims that 50,000 illegal migrants pass through Cypriot waters into the EU each year.
There has been real progress in regional cooperation over the last year or so. These advances include:
Thus, the predominant strategy within the Mediterranean region is now bilateral cooperation in coastal areas and along land borders; the signing and effective implementation of readmission agreements with non-EU countries of transit; and the construction of immigration controls in neighboring non-EU countries, in order that they control transit migration as well as emigration. It seems probable that these measures will have some effect: what remains in doubt, is whether or not there is any real deterrent to migrants determined to reach the privileged shores of the European Union.
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