E.g., 12/10/2023
E.g., 12/10/2023
The Changing Mosaic of Mediterranean Migrations

The Changing Mosaic of Mediterranean Migrations

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.

  • Spain's municipal registers (showing illegal as well as legal immigrants) reveal that by 2003 the dominant migrant group was no longer Moroccan but Ecuadorian, with high numbers of Colombians, Romanians, and Argentines. Including EU nationals, who are by far the biggest group, immigrants in Spain represented over six percent of the total population, with an increase of nearly 700,000 people from the previous year. Of these, some 850,000 are thought to be without legal residence.
  • Italy's immigrant legalization program of 2003 had a surprising 705,000 applicants (the second-largest legalization ever in the world), of which 20 percent were Romanian, 15 percent Ukrainian, eight percent Albanian, and eight percent Moroccan.
  • Portugal's 2003 data show that legally present Ukrainians had displaced Brazilians as the dominant nationality, although the greater number of undocumented Brazilians who have applied for legalization will probably soon reverse the picture.
  • Greece's data from the 2001 Census reveal that Albanians remain the dominant immigrant group at about 55 percent of the total foreign population.

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:

  • 1998 Immigration Law, Italy. This introduced a clear right to family reunification and sponsored migration for employment search, both policies acting as alternative conduits to illegal migration.
  • Law 4/2000, Spain. This established a continuous legalization process, rights for illegal migrants, and duties of state agencies in dealing with applications (timeframe to respond, grounds for refusal, etc.).
  • 2001 Immigration Law, Portugal. This introduced major innovations, including multiple and flexible visa arrangements, a continuous legalization process, and clear duties of state agencies.

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:

  • Pre-entry authorization in foreign consulate with guaranteed job (under labor ministry quota)
  • Short permits (one or two years)
  • Continuous employment needed to renew permits (usually allowing six months to find another job)
  • Reduction or removal of many previously held legal rights
  • Aggressive police and other measures to detect illegal immigrants
  • More secure borders
  • More readmission agreements with sending and transit countries

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:

  • "Boat migrants," unauthorized migrants attempting to reach Southern European shores, often in rickety vessels, who are the most visible and attract both media and political attention. Many of these die of starvation, overcrowded conditions, or hypothermia while on the boat, or their bodies are washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean.
  • Stolen (blank) passports and other documents, which now plague most of the Southern European states.
  • The corruption of state officials in selling semi-genuine visas and other documents, which is a frequent mechanism for illegal immigration. The clearest cases reported by the press have involved Greek consulates; others have been more hidden.
  • The trafficking of women and children, which, while relatively small in size in this region, frequently involves astonishing cruelty, torture, and death for its victims and entails the complicity of numerous state officials in many countries. One recently discovered example is Cyprus, whose government has been condemned by the independent State Ombudsman's Office for tolerating the trafficking of women for prostitution by issuing 2,000 short-term permits a year.
  • Illegal immigration into Portugal via Schengen countries (mainly through Germany)—an ironic twist considering that for two decades, Northern EU countries have complained about illegal immigration via Southern European countries.

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.

Regional Cooperation

There has been real progress in regional cooperation over the last year or so. These advances include:

  • Morocco and Spain began joint naval patrols aimed at catching boat migrants in February 2004, and in January 2004 Morocco accepted for the first time the return of sub-Saharan boat migrants under its readmission treaty with Spain.
  • Morocco passed a new tough law on immigration in 2003 and set up two new institutions: the Directorate of Migration and Border Surveillance, and a Migration Observatory. These, in collaboration with the Spanish Integrated Service of Vigilance of the Straits (SIVE) are expected to have a significant impact on illegal migration. For 2003, Morocco claims to have prevented some 32,000 cases of illegal migration to Spain, of which only half were Moroccans. There are reports that traffickers have relocated to Algeria because of these innovations.
  • Tunisia is currently planning new laws to combat illegal migration.
  • Libya has been in talks with Italy on collaborative efforts to curb illegal migration and in July 2003 signed an agreement with Italy for financial support to combat smuggling and provide sea-rescue operations.
  • Turkey has for some time been making efforts to discourage illegal transit migration, recording the capture of 24,000 coastal migrants in 2001 and a total of 93,000 illegal migrants for that year. Greece and Turkey concluded a readmission agreement in 2002, which has had limited operational effect.
  • Albanian border reforms, in collaboration with Italy, are thought to have brought under control Albanian illegal migration to Italy.

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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