Making EU border controls more efficient
By Keijo Himanen
There is a constant stream, more like a flood, of huge numbers of illegal immigrants and asylum seekers into Europe.
According to a recent estimate, around 400,000 people cross the EU's borders each year without the necessary travel documents. Two-thirds of this number take advantage of the poor border controls that exist in member-states fronting the Mediterranean Sea.
Spain, France, Italy, and Greece have for years turned a relatively blind eye to the flow of illegal immigrants. In part their indifference to the matter has been driven by a desire to secure cheap labour. For example in Spain there is an extensive market in unregistered workers.
When the newcomers have done their time working illegally, they are eventually "regularised" and are granted residence and work permits.
Not long ago, Spain issued an amnesty to 548,000 former illegals. It was not the first such amnesty: on the previous occasion in 2001, 221,000 people were able to register themselves.
In the current decade, Italy has given legal residency status to 634,000 people and Greece to 228,000. An estimated aggregate of around 3.7 million illegal aliens have been given official documents sanctioning their stay in Europe during the past quarter of a century. A large part of this number have become "legals" in the last five or six years.
One salient reason for the leaking of the borders is money. For every person suspected of illegal entry who is caught, the bill for getting him or her out of the country is likely to be at least EUR 10,000. In the case of Finland, checking the backgrounds of asylum-seekers costs a good deal more.
It has been calculated in the EU that illegal immigration costs the member-states around EUR 4,000 million each year, and this is a conservative estimate.
It is understandable that the countries with heavy flows of migrants at their doors would like to see the cost burdens passed on to others, and that hence they allow the incomers to continue their journey within the EU. By no means all arrivals wish to stay in the European country where they first make landfall.
The EU first began to pay serious attention to matters of immigration- , border control-, and asylum policy during Finland's earlier term as the rotating Presidency in the latter half of 1999.
Since then the systems have been developed, albeit that no common refugee and asylum-seeker policy has been brought into being.
One tangible step forward was the establishment in 2003 of the Eurodac fingerprint register, into which the data of all asylum-seekers and illegal immigrants should be recorded.
The register provides a means of checking that a person having received a negative decision on an application for asylum - or anyone otherwise deported from the country - is not able simply to move on to another country and cause another round of the processing in the new location.
According to the so-called Dublin Convention [from June 1990], to which all member-states are a party, a person who has already lodged an asylum application and been rejected will be returned to the country where his or her case was first handled.
It has nevertheless become clear that in some of the countries with heavy flows of immigrants, the taking of fingerprints is neglected, even if they are participants in Eurodac. The register is thus seriously deficient, and it does not serve the useful purpose for which it was originally designed.
During its upcoming six months at the EU helm, Finland intends to put these shortcomings on the table.
The Ministry of the Interior is currently putting together an initiative for a deepening of shared European responsibilities on immigration, border controls, and refugee matters.
Finland wants the European Union to have a system under which the costs incurred in handling asylum applications and the return of illegals, and the burden of the Union's external border controls, should be borne commonly by all members.
The idea behind the proposal is that the EU would start to pay its members for those expenses that are caused by asylum-seekers and illegal immigrants. The purpose of the payback arrangement would be to act as a carrot to those countries which currently allow illegals to cross their borders without check - out of fear of the colossal costs they will bring if they are properly documented and processed.
The compensation for one person could for instance be that same EUR 10,000 that has been calculated as the cost of processing one illegal immigrant. The condition would nevertheless be that the avoidance of responsibility by a member-state in border control matters or immigration policy would be made as difficult as humanly possible.
A country holding out its hand for compensation would be obliged to show, for example through Eurodac, that an application for asylum is being formally handled. Any EU payback would also not be forthcoming in a single lump sum, but the lion's share of any payment would be made only after the illegal immigrant has been returned from whence he or she came.
Finland has already provisionally put forward its ideas on shared responsibility to other EU countries. The Minister of the Interior Kari Rajamäki (SDP) and his staff were in Madrid yesterday and are in Strasbourg today. The preparations will continue in such a way that Finland's proposal can be put on the table at the European Council summit in the autumn.
Finland is quite well suited to the role of a country fostering EU border security.
Finnish border control procedures are praised as being the most efficient in the Union, and through Ilkka Laitinen, the Executive Director of Frontex [or more long-windedly, the "European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union"], the Finns are well placed in the core of border control matters.
The model for cooperation that exists between the Finnish police, the Customs, and the Border Guard, and the collaboration between police forces around the Baltic Sea region are good examples of the sort of tools that are used to keep border security on the front burner in Finland. Cooperation between different authorities inside the EU as a whole is not even remotely on the same level.
The problem of illegal immigrants has been much in the news in recent weeks, with thousands of Africans making landfall in the Canary Islands in the hope of gaining access to mainland Europe.
The Spanish government has requested urgent assistance from Frontex, but the response among EU members has been less than enthusiastic. Finland has decided to send a Dornier air surveillance plane and a few border control experts to the region.
Spain, and a few other Mediterranean states along with it, has in any event become more active in considering precisely how the tide of immigrants can be stemmed.
The European Commission, too, wants to see improvements to the border controls on the Union's southern flank. The cruel truth, however, is that the problems with leaky controls cannot be resolved as individual cases, but the EU must be prepared to create a uniform system across the entire length and breadth of the Union.
Each member-state has to remember that responsibility for the monitoring of external borders, immigration controls, and asylum application handling procedures lies with the member-states themselves and with their national authorities.
In this respect, the Finnish initiative on common responsibility and sharing the burden is a step towards a more efficient means of controlling the EU's borders.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 14.6.2006
The writer is a Helsingin Sanomat editorial columnist.
Previously in HS International Edition:
TV news report: Finland to send border guards to Canary Islands (2.6.2006)
Finnish EU Presidency website
Finnish Border Guard
Frontex (Wikipedia - Frontex website still under construction)
KEIJO HIMANEN / Helsingin Sanomat