Riots in Mideast and North Africa prompt wave of illegal migration

A fishing boat with migrants from North Africa which arrives on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa on March 7. Thousands of illegal migrants fleeing political turmoil have landed on this island in the Mediterranean.

March 21, 2011, Monday/ 17:20:00

The wave of public uprisings against decades-old dictatorships that first began in Tunisia, from where it spread to the Middle East, has sparked the largest movement of migrants the world has seen since World War II.

Officials report a 58 percent increase in the number of illegal migrants trying to make their way to European countries. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) in its latest report on the issue said the riots have triggered a major flow of migrants across the Mediterranean region, calling for urgent measures to stem the tide.

Justice and Development Party (AK Party) Mardin deputy Zeynep Dağı, who chairs the UfM's Turkish delegation, told Today's Zaman that illegal migrants across the Mediterranean are no rarity but that the recent instability in the region has worsened the situation.

“There have always been illegal migrants in the Mediterranean, but their numbers have grown significantly because of the riots. The only way to stop this wave of migration is for these countries to gain stability and their people to get a fair share of income distribution. If not, we could see bigger waves.”

The report’s findings are confirmed by data from Turkish officials. The Interior Ministry says there has been a sharp and sudden increase in the number of illegal migrants captured this year in comparison with the past two years. In 2010, Turkey saw a 50 percent fall in the number of illegal migrants captured by officials, but the ministry now says the numbers are back to pre-2010 levels. The officials say the surge is linked to the riots in the Middle East and North Africa.

Italy, France and Spain in trouble

The UfM report says the number of migrants trying to illegally enter Europe has risen by 58 percent. The report says the number of illegal migrants in Malta, which once served as a center for migrants, has decreased by half. The same goes for Lampedusa, an Italian island that used to be a main transit site for new arrivals. According to official data, the number of migrants trying to use this island as a stop in their journey to Europe has fallen by 94 percent.

According to the report, 22,000 illegal migrants from North African made it to Italian shores in 2006, while this figure was 19,900 in 2007 and 8,700 in 2008. However, the tide seems to be turning again, as within two days after the Tunisia riots, 5,500 migrants from Tunisia reached Lampedusa, which prompted an overwhelmed Italy to seek help from the European Union. A majority of these 5,500 people have been sent back to their country as the uprising there ended, but Italy found itself in a similar position again when the Libyan uprising starting shortly thereafter. Figures show that a large number of migrants who took off from Egyptian ports have already come to Italy, with officials of that country saying that the total number could reach 80,000 over the next few months.

The number of illegal migrants landing in Spain had also been steadily falling prior to the riots. In 2006, 39,000 illegal migrants entered the country, which fell to 18,000 people in 2007 and to 13,000 in 2008. France expelled about 27,000 illegal migrants last year, but along with Italy and Spain, France is also facing an influx of illegal migrants.

The EU, which deployed units from the EU’s border protection agency Frontex at the Turkish-Greek border, recently started to get some positive results. In October of last year, 7,600 illegal migrants trying to use this course were captured while this number stood at 3,400 at the beginning of December. The UfM wants to start similar missions at the Italian, French and Spanish borders.

Turkey runs for record

The number of illegal migrants captured in Turkey reached 72,000 people in 2009, followed by a fall of about 58 percent in 2010. However, the recent influx is likely to reverse this situation. According to projections by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Turkey might see record numbers in the flow of illegal migration this year.

According to the UNHCR, 62,459 illegal migrants entered Turkey in 2008, down from 64,290 in 2007, but more than the 51,983 captured in 2006. Currently, 11,970 illegal migrants are in Turkey. Most of these are Afghan refugees seeking asylum in third countries, followed by a significant number of Iraqis and Iranians. Officials also say there has been a significant increase in the number of Burmese migrants.

The UNHCR predicts the number of illegal migrants in Turkey to double by the end of this year. The commissioner estimates rises particularly in the number of Iranian and Afghan migrants. Turkey is having a difficult time dealing with migrants, only because of the instability in Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan. This, coupled with potential unrest in other Middle Eastern countries, might cause a tidal wave of migrants during 2011.

The UfM includes all EU member states and 10 Mediterranean partners (Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Syria, Tunisia and Turkey) as well as some countries that have observer status (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Mauritania, Montenegro and Serbia).

In a proposal it issued on March 4, the UfM recommended the creation of a Euro-Mediterranean Investment Bank to help fund the transition to democracy in countries on the Mediterranean’s southern shore. In the same proposal, the delegates also signed a declaration condemning Libya’s Gaddafi regime and calling for international humanitarian assistance at its borders.

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