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Europe Confronts Its Borders

Simba Russeau

TUNIS, Sep 16 2011 (IPS) - The influx of Tunisian migrants into Europe following the country’s ‘Jasmine Revolt’ has sparked a debate over the application of the passport-free Schengen Agreement.

Under a new draft European Union Commission proposal, which is due to be presented on Sep. 16, European Union (EU) member states seeking to revise the Schengen Agreement’s border free travel beyond five days must first get approval from Brussels.

If approved, the new law would give the European Commission and the European parliament a more central role in deciding how the Schengen regime operates.

The new proposal is in response to France’s decision to push back some 1,700 Tunisian migrants into Italy and tighten its borders in April. On Jul. 5 Denmark followed suit by establishing border and customs checks along its border with Sweden and Germany.

“At the onset, France closed its border and only allowed those migrants that could survive financially. Their argument was that Italy was issuing illegal temporary residence permits to Tunisians and other third country nationals,” Daniel F. Rivera, EU expert at Universidad Autónoma de Madrid told IPS.

“It’s quite paradoxical because French President Nicholas Sarkozy was one of the first to hail the Tunisians and Libyans for their revolution but has done very little to deal with the influx of refugees and economic migrants,” adds Rivera.

“Instead France has adopted a very protectionist stance by advocating the reform of the Schengen Agreement along with Italy which would allow member states to close their borders indefinitely without permission when ‘exceptional measures’ arise.”

Scarce jobs and slow social reforms have resulted in the exodus of more than 30,000 Tunisian economic migrants onto the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, a burden other EU member states have declined to share.

“I don’t understand why many Tunisians decided to leave the country illegally after the revolution. Many were misled by the assumption that if they travel to a developed country they’ll get rich, create a dream life and then return home,” 22-year-old Eymen Gamha told IPS.

“This might have worked in the 60’s or 70’s but now France and Italy are doing everything possible to stop illegal migrants and for the majority of those Tunisians that reach Europe, the dream is becoming a nightmare.”

Established on Jun. 14, 1985, and taking effect in 1995, the Schengen Agreement abolished internal border checks amongst the 25 signatory states, and created a single external border with common rules on visas and law enforcement.

According to article 2.2 of the agreement, member states are allotted a short period of time to unilaterally reinstate border checks in case of threats to national security before then asking the European Commission the executive arm of the EU, to prolong it.

Although most EU member states agree on allowing some 400 million Europeans to travel passport-free within the EU, divisions continue over developing common migrant, refugee and asylum policies at a time when domestic politics for many countries in the EU is being shaped by anti-immigrant agendas.

“With elections in Denmark now and in France next year, some EU leaders are exploiting the situation to boost poll ratings under the guise of protecting national security, EU values and reducing economic burdens,” says Rivera.

“However, closing borders and ignoring the root causes of mass migration won’t solve the problem and if other countries follow suit then the Schengen Agreement, which was seen as one of the EU’s major achievements, will be in real danger of disappearing.”

Sfax, a city located some 270 kilometres southeast of Tunisian capital Tunis, that was once the economic capital of Tunisia and the country’s first major fishing port, is now becoming a major source of illegal migration into Europe.

“Fishermen in Sfax are being forced to guard their boats out of fear that they will be stolen and used to smuggle Tunisians across the Mediterranean,” 20-year-old Sami told IPS.

“Despite hearing about those that have been detained, returned or even drowned, I still consider paying the 3,000 dollars to try and reach France where I have relatives and where the economy is healthier. Just like with the Tunisian uprising, we will risk everything to better our livelihoods.”

Many Tunisians complain that those who ran off in search of greener pastures immediately after street protests brought down long-time dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, have abandoned their revolution while the country struggles to rebuild.

“I kind of understand their decision to go abroad but the reality is that one-third of the migrants that fled to Europe have returned and those that made it through are stuck in holding centres,” 19-year-old Ahmed Nijin told IPS.

“Personally I don’t believe that they should be granted the right to vote because they fled the country at time when we should be feeling a sense of pride in our country, and so they shouldn’t have the right to decide the fate of Tunisia.”

“As Tunisians it’s important that we solve our problems together,” adds Gamha. “Running away whenever the country is faced with hardships means that we’ll never be able to capitalise on what we accomplished, which is an opportunity to build a stable democratic and economic system like that of Europe.”

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