Facing a worsening economic outlook and increasing public hostility to foreign workers, Europe's governments are quietly revising their asylum policies. This controversial new approach includes stricter maritime controls in the Mediterranean, including the interception of boats carrying would-be refugees and immigrants before they reach European territory. Those caught by patrol guards are being forcibly sent to Libya, the North African country used by many would-be asylum seekers as a base to set out for Europe but which is notorious for flouting refugee rights.
The tough new policy, favoured by politicians such as Italy's conservative Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, certainly plays to the public mood. But by keeping out young and able-bodied potential workers, it fails to take account of the continent's longer-term concern over labour shortages, clouding the future of ageing Europe. Mass forced deportations also breach European countries' commitments to international conventions on the protection of refugees and run counter to an EU pledge to craft a more humane policy for providing shelter to those fleeing violence and persecution.
Europe's battle to keep out the unwanted is being played out in the most dramatic - and often tragic - fashion in Italy, Spain, Greece, Cyprus and Malta. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that in 2008, more than 67,000 people, including African, Asian and Middle Eastern asylum seekers, tried to enter Europe via the Mediterranean, often making the perilous sea journey in rickety boats. While exact statistics are not available, many are known to drown or starve to death during the voyage.
Those lucky enough to survive are interned in crowded make-shift camps in places like Lampedusa, an Italian island half-way between the European mainland and Libya, pending a review of their asylum applications. Determined to stem the tide, however, Rome is now leading the way in sending the refugees it intercepts in the Mediterranean back to Libya. About 900 people are so far believed to have been packed off to Tripoli in Libyan patrol boats, following a co-operation agreement between the two countries signed earlier this year.
Human rights groups, backed by the Vatican, are angry at Italy's open flouting of international rules that ban mass deportations, but Rome says its new stance is more humane because it discourages migrants from embarking on hazardous sea voyages to Europe. Certainly, the number of refugees seeking asylum in Italy has gone down. But human rights groups fear that Italy's aggressive action marks the beginning of a Europe-wide move to "outsource" the bloc's asylum and migration policies to African countries, many of which are anxious to receive European funds in return for such co-operation, but which, like Libya, have not signed the 1951 Geneva Convention on refugee rights.
"Fortress Europe ... is a reality," Irene Khan, secretary general of Amnesty International, said during a visit to Brussels earlier this year, adding: "Access to Europe is very difficult and the initial border of the European Union is being pushed further and further away."
With illegal migrants in the EU believed to number about 8 million, Khan's criticism is shrugged off by policymakers who view refugees as would-be economic immigrants seeking to bluff their way into Europe. Governments across Europe are restricting peoples' right to apply for asylum upon reaching European soil - and to appeal against a rejection if necessary. Like Italy, other EU countries are also increasingly ignoring international conventions that bar refugees from being sent back to countries where they might be in danger.
Reflecting the new get-tough stance, the European Commission, meanwhile, backed efforts to strengthen the EU border-control agency Frontex to stop the influx of boat refugees while racist and xenophobic parties performed exceptionally well in elections to the European Parliament held in June. As the recession bites, mainstream European politicians are also using anti-foreigner rhetoric to win votes. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown caused consternation last year when he said he wanted to keep "British jobs for British workers". Many French and German politicians increasingly make no secret of their anti-immigration sentiments.
Spain's Socialist government, viewed as liberal on immigration but now reeling from the economic crisis, has also begun to toughen its laws by allowing longer detentions of illegal immigrants and using one-time payoffs to encourage legal immigrants to leave. The Greek authorities have also launched a crackdown on illegal immigration.
As they struggle to cope with the tide of unwanted people, EU countries are considering options such as increasing development aid for the migrants' countries of origin to create local jobs. "We are in an alarming situation: either we help Africa, either we help fight poverty and desperation, or our future as a region of well-being and progress falls into question," Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said recently. He insisted that despite the downturn, EU nations had the resources and the capacity to help extreme poverty disappear.
So far, however, only Denmark, Luxembourg, Norway, the Netherlands and Sweden have met or surpassed a long-standing United Nations target for rich nations to provide 0.7 per cent of their income in development aid by 2015.
The current economic slowdown may help ease some of the pressure on Europe. Recent statistics show, for example, that the number of refugees landing in Spain has dwindled this year, partly because of increased controls but largely due to the economic crisis. However, given the vast disparity in wealth between Europe and Africa, despite Europe's downturn, the prospect of a better life will continue to entice many to risk the dangerous voyage to Europe.
That is probably just as well: old and ageing Europe needs skilled and unskilled foreign labour to work in its factories, farm its agricultural lands and meet consumer demand in growing service industries. Tax payments by young workers are desperately needed to compensate for shrinking contributions to national coffers, funds which are needed to bolster health care systems and finance pensions.
Even as it implements tougher policies to keep out illegal foreigners, the European Commission is encouraging EU states to sign "partnership" agreements with developing countries to encourage the legal immigration of workers. The Commission is also behind a so-called "blue card" scheme under which EU states are allowed to open their doors to a limited number of high-skilled workers. The initiative is enthusiastically backed by Europe's high tech sectors which say Europe's global competitiveness is at stake unless it can attract more skilled foreigners. Critics point out, however, that caveats written into the proposal, including restrictions on how long workers can stay in Europe and their freedom to move within the bloc, make it unattractive to the very people the EU is trying to entice.
The current economic climate and public hostility towards migrants has in any case dampened Europe's search for foreign labour. However, as they struggle to compete in the increasingly fierce global race for talent, EU governments will have to work harder to convince a sceptical public of the need to create a more open and inclusive society. Europe's appetite for forced deportations may help leaders like Prime Minster Berlusconi to win the next election but it could spell disaster for the long-term economic well being and stability of the continent.