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By Philippe Legrain ADD COMMENTS

Europe prides itself on being a continent of human rights, freedom and international solidarity. Yet it is fighting an increasingly dirty war against immigration, with casualties mounting every day. The biggest victims are the poor and the vulnerable, who are demonised as "illegal" or "bogus". But EU governments are also doing huge harm to the societies they purportedly want to protect.

Britain continues to hunt down unauthorised migrants and is planning to introduce ID cards for foreigners. In Italy, Gypsy camps have been burned down, and the Berlusconi government, far from protecting the targets of such racist attacks, is whipping up animosity against them and fingerprinting them. Spain is increasing its efforts to stop desperate Africans from reaching European soil, causing thousands to die each year as they take longer and more dangerous routes to avoid detection. Last month 15 people died of dehydration and exposure when their boat engine failed as they tried to reach Almería, on the Costa del Sol. The previous week 14 people drowned when their boat sank off nearby Motril.

Those lucky enough to escape death en route to Europe now face being locked up when they arrive. The EU’s new "return directive", which was recently approved by European interior ministers and MEPs, allows governments to imprison – sorry, detain – unauthorised migrants for up to 18 months. Why? For daring to cross a border in search of a better life.

As the EU begins to adopt a common approach to immigration, the British government is helping to draft Europe-wide measures that attract little coverage in the UK. Frontex, the EU’s border force, is helping southern European governments to patrol the Mediterranean and around the Canaries. And while the return directive was front-page news in Spain, it was a footnote in Britain.

There is plenty more to come. Nicolas Sarkozy, the son of a Hungarian migrant, has made cracking down on migration a priority for France’s EU presidency, which lasts until the end of this year. His proposed migration pact aims to make it easier for the EU to attract highly qualified migrants, establish common European refugee and asylum policies by 2010, beef up policing of the EU’s borders, and expel more illegal migrants. EU leaders are due to decide on the plans in October.

They should reject them. Europe’s clampdown on immigration is neither fair nor sensible. Undocumented migrants are not criminals, nor are they an invading army. They are human beings less fortunate than ourselves. Most come to do jobs that comfortable Europeans no longer want to do, but as Europe’s front doors are closed, they have to creep in through the back. Far from threatening Europe’s ageing societies, they are reinvigorating them. What’s more, the billions of pounds they send home dwarfs the sums that European governments give in aid.

The cruel irony is that, despite all the suffering they cause, Europe’s increasingly costly border controls fail to keep foreigners out. Instead, they foster people-smuggling and an ever-expanding shadow economy in which illegal migrants are vulnerable to exploitation, labour laws are broken and taxes go unpaid. They also encourage people who would rather work temporarily to remain permanently, because migrants fear that if they go home they will not be able to return to Europe. Surveys of Senegalese migrants in Italy show that most would prefer to spend part of their time working in Europe and part back home, just as the Poles who commute back and forth to Britain do. A sensible immigration policy would facilitate this.

Posted 08 Aug 2008 in Published articles

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