Thirteen refugees were found dead, and fifteen almost dead, on a boat outside Italy’s coast on Sunday 19 October.

The survivors said that more than 50 people had died during the trip and had been dumped overboard. The European Union’s (EU) response to these tragedies at its borders is to raise the wall keeping out refugees even higher.

Harmonisation of migration is at the top of the agenda for European Union governments. New rules and laws are under preparation. The UNHCR, the refugee agency of the UN, Amnesty International and the International Red Cross are among the critics of the proposals. The Swedish government, on the other hand, has given full support and plan their own tightening of the conditions for asylum seekers.

This harmonisation includes agreements with “safe third countries” to which refugees can be deported. Another shortlist of safe origin countries will decide those countries which refugees will always be sent back to.

In 2004, the EU will set up a new agency for border control. It will support the training of border guards and give advice on how to deport illegal migrants to a third, non-EU country.

Leading the way in this are the five biggest member states - Germany, Britain, France, Italy and Spain. They want to form a “European Security Zone” against migrants and refugees. The five governments have held separate meetings to prepare for all-EU proposals. One proposal is that Germany will be in charge of land borders, Italy for airports and Spain and Greece for sea borders in the Mediterranean. They also propose that the Schengen register of refugees and others should start using iris scanning and finger prints.

For the politicians it is mainly a question of cutting costs. It’s also about stability, to avoid a bigger flood of refugees later. Following the tragedy in Italy, Romano Prodi, the president of the EU Commission, said, “This burden should not be carried by the individual member states” - as if it’s not the refugees who are the injured party! By focusing on the “problem” with refugees, some politicians also hope to sow splits and confusion among working people.

The harmonisation starts with all governments setting a figure for refugees allowed in during a year. These “targets” will be discussed and finalised at EU summits. The Commission is then supposed to coordinate these “quotas”. Increased pressure will be used against states in North Africa and Eastern Europe to prevent refugees reaching EU countries.

Right to appeal under threat

The new Swedish migration minister, Barbro Holmberg, defends this EU-led attack. In an interview in the paper ‘Dagens Nyheter’, she admitted that the Swedish government is worried that “more and more asylum seekers end up in Sweden. Yes, I think that one reason for common rules is that all countries should take their responsibility. Now it is very much the case that they try to give it to someone else.”

What “responsibility”, however, does Holmberg or Prime Minister Göran Persson, expect from for example the Italian government? Umberto Bossi, government minister and leader of Lega Nord, previously this year advocated that Italian gun-ships should fire at boats with refugees. Barbro Holmberg is bluffing when she pretends that the “harmonisation” is just a redivision of costs. If that were the case, more governments would be opposed.

The real motives become clearer when we know that Barbro Holmberg and the Swedish social democratic government, in parallel with EU plans, are preparing a further worsening of the Swedish refugee policies.

“We will abolish the right to appeal after a final no decision”, Holmberg explained. If this rule had been decided ten years ago, thousands of refugees who today have been given asylum in Sweden would have been deported or driven into hiding. One such case is Okoth Osewe, from Kenya, a well known member of Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (CWI in Sweden). The threat against his life in Kenya was not considered enough reason to allow him to stay in Sweden when Okoth’s application was first dealt with by the authorities. Only after a big public campaign did he get asylum in 1995.

It is a fact that the Migration Office and the Foreigners’ Bureau often play down the accounts from the refugees. Tortured and seriously ill people have been deported. Many did not dare to tell their real story at the first interview. Those who fight for the right of asylum have often only been able to intervene and campaign after a first no decision.

Barbro Holmberg claims that the right to appeal will be abolished out of consideration for the children. “They sink roots and friends”, if the parents are allowed an appeal. By this logic, if would have been better for nine year old Nadina Imamovic to have been deported years ago. Nadina has a serious eye illness, which cannot be treated properly in Bosnia to where she was deported this year. Her parents fought for years for the family’s right to stay. The obvious fault is, of course, not with the right of appeal, but with the politicians who sent her away in such a cold blooded fashion.

Barbro Holmberg claims that she shouldn’t be criticised, because “a lot of fighting over these issues ... can be exploited by xenophobic groups.” But it is entirely justifiable campaigning by socialists, workers and refugee groups that in many cases have forced the authorities to reverse their decisions and grant asylum. What the racist organisations are really able to exploit are racist asylum policies.

In Italy, in recent years, big demonstrations have been organised against the inhuman refugee policies of the Berlusconi government. Radical unions like the Metal Workers have participated. This is needed in Sweden and in the EU as a whole.

Per-Oke Westerlund, Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (cwi Sweden).

Committee for a workers' International publications

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