Africa, Civil Society, Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

MIGRATION: 35 Countries Agree to Regulate Flows Across Mediterranean

Mario de Queiroz

ALBUFEIRA, Portugal, Nov 20 2007 (IPS) - Everyone agrees: migration flows from the developing South to the industrialised North must be regulated to curb the appalling trafficking of human beings across the Mediterranean sea.

The 35 countries that took part in a two-day government meeting in Portugal agreed on everything that must be done to prevent especially the trafficking of women, who often fall prey to prostitution and sexual exploitation networks, and to strengthen the channels of legal migration.

The village of Albufeira, in the southern Portuguese region of Algarve, hosted the first Euro-Mediterranean conference on migration Sunday and Monday.

The Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (Euromed) is made up of 25 of the 27 European Union countries and 10 Mediterranean partners: Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestinian Authority, Syria, Tunisia and Turkey. Libya holds observer status since 1999.

Bulgaria and Rumania, which joined the EU on Jan. 1, are the only EU countries that do not belong to Euromed.

The interior ministers and other government representatives announced Monday that the EU would introduce training courses for migrant workers, pre-departure professional training and linguistic courses for potential migrants, information campaigns on legal migration and labour opportunities available in the countries of destination, and programmes and activities for newly arrived legal immigrants.

The main aim of these initiatives is to facilitate the flows of legal immigrants from non-EU Mediterranean countries and bolster their social and professional integration, according to the ministers, who also decided to create a joint working group to carry out an in-depth study of the labour situation and labour market needs for migrants.

Interior Minister Rui Pereira of Portugal, which holds the EU rotating presidency, said “these conclusions reflect a real will and interest in working together, in a partnership that will address the phenomenon of migration in a broad sense.”

The Algarve, whose name comes from al-Gharb, which means “the West” in Arabic, is the region with the strongest Moorish influence in Portugal.

The main aims of the meeting were to improve management of migration flows, fight trafficking in human beings, and strengthen opportunities for legal migration, economic development and cultural exchange.

“In order to promote the framework that allows for the orderly management of legal migration in the interest of all parties concerned, it is proposed to analyse the possibilities of facilitating and simplifying legal migration procedures for workers in demand, in order to improve legal channels for migration,” the ministers noted in their conclusions.

The final declaration says that cooperation among all Mediterranean countries is essential in order to stiffen border controls and obtain concrete results.

Despite the upbeat tone of the final document, non-EU countries complained of “brain drain” from North Africa to Europe.

Tunisian Minister of Social Affairs Ali Chaouch, who spoke with reporters after the meeting along with Ahmed El-Kewaisny, the coordinator of the group of Arab countries in Albufeira, told IPS that the countries of the Maghreb – Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania – “need their brains.”

With respect to economic questions, special emphasis was put on the remittances sent home by emigrants, an important source of revenues for the countries along the southern edge of the Mediterranean, and on microcredit, a mechanism that is becoming more and more important as a curb on migration flows to the EU.

Last week, Euromed released a study based on 2004 data that showed that the largest flows of expatriate remittances from the EU go to the Maghreb, especially Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, while the main source countries of those flows are Spain, Italy and France.

Morocco is by far the leading destination, receiving 4.2 billion dollars in remittances in 2004, followed by Algeria, with 828 million, and Tunisia, with 228 million.

“Remittance flows to non-EU countries increase(d) almost 25 percent during the period 2000-2004, from 15.5 billion estimated in 2000 to 18.7 billion in 2004”, with the biggest remittance growth seen in Spain and Italy, said the report.

In recent years, European civil society organisations have loudly criticised the EU’s lack of flexibility with respect to migration flows from Africa, and have called for measures like temporary worker programmes.

Non-governmental organisations see that as one solution to curtailing “the sinister trafficking across the Mediterranean, in flimsy boats, of dozens or sometimes hundreds of African adults and children, who try, often unsuccessfully and with fatal consequences, to reach ‘the promised land’ in Europe,” activist Ana Filgueiras, with the Brazilian-Portuguese NGO Cidadãos do Mundo (Citizens of the World), told IPS.

In one of the latest such tragedies, 56 Africans trying to reach Spain’s Canary Islands starved to death, were killed or committed suicide when they found that the cans that supposedly carried fuel were actually full of water. Only the Senegalese skipper was found alive in late October in the boat, which had drifted south of the Cape Verde islands.

An increasingly frequent occurrence for people living in the Canary Islands or southern Italy – the EU destinations closest to Africa – is to come across bodies of migrants or starving survivors among the wreckage of boats that are far from suitable for an ocean crossing.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres sent the Portuguese government a message lamenting that the meeting in Albufeira failed to specifically address the plight of refugees and asylum-seekers.

Nor did the phenomenon of trafficking in human beings, announced as one of the key focuses of the gathering, receive much attention from the ministers.

The day before the meeting in Albufeira, Portugal’s Serviço de Estrangeiros e Fronteiras (SEF – Foreigners and Borders Service) held a seminar to launch the “You Are Not For Sale” campaign aimed at fighting trafficking in persons.

The characteristics of this illegal business in Portugal are similar to what happens in other EU countries where people trafficking rings have mushroomed, mainly run by people from the countries where the victims themselves are smuggled in from.

The typical victim is a young woman from the developing South or from central or eastern Europe who is lured to a rich country by a trafficker with promises of a decent, well-paid job. Once there, her passport is seized, and she is forced to work as a prostitute to pay off the debt incurred in smuggling her into the country.

Luísa Maia Gonçalves, SEF coordinator of the campaign that has the support of the Council of Europe and will include the publication of a book containing harrowing testimonies of victims, said the idea is to raise awareness and alert people to the reality of human beings “being transformed into merchandise on a daily basis.”

Two weeks from now, SEF will also distribute 10,000 copies of the book from the “You Are Not For Sale” seminar, in Brazil, the world’s biggest Portuguese-speaking country and the source of the largest community of immigrants in Portugal.

The U.S. State Department’s seventh annual “Trafficking in Persons Report”, released in June, says “Portugal is primarily a destination and transit country for women, men, and children trafficked from Brazil, Ukraine, Moldova, Russia, Romania, and to a lesser extent Africa. The majority of Brazilian female victims are trafficked for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation.”

The report adds that Portugal “does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so.”

Jorge Lacão, secretary of state to the EU presidency, pointed to “the growing feminisation of poverty, which fuels situations of sexual and labour exploitation.”

In her doctoral thesis “Brazilian Immigration in Portugal: Identity and Perspective”, presented Saturday at the University of Coimbra, Brazilian researcher Benalva da Silva Vitória says people emigrate from Brazil to Portugal “with the hope of a better life,” but that they quickly “discover that it’s not easy here.”

And it is even more difficult for Brazilian women, who face the stereotype of being “sensual, loose, ‘easy’ and willing to take any kind of work,” said the researcher.

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