EC: CONTINENT faces migrant invasion.

EC: CONTINENT faces migrant invasion. - To have-nots, the EC is the dream. But it could be a nightmare. Peter Wilsher.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

To have-nots, the EC is the dream. But it could be a nightmare. Peter Wilsher.

In Brussels these days, the maid who opens the door of your hostess's expensive inner-city apartment is no longer the invariable Filipino of earlier years; she is at least as likely to be a smartly dressed Polish girl from Katowice or Lodz. But if, as is probable in this case, she has the required purse-full of visas, work permits and assorted accreditation, then she is a rare exception. Most members of Europe's swelling immigrant army have little time for papers and official procedures: their priority is to get inside those increasingly unwelcoming EC walls and then make it as difficult as possible for the harassed authorities to pry them loose.

Along the Oder River, that marks the frontier between Poland and the old East Germany, thousands of men (and a handful of women and teenage children) are camped in the woods, patiently waiting a chance to slip across. To make it from there, though, you need transport, local knowledge and probably a professional guide, which costs money. Further south, the Neisse is in some places possible to wade across (if you can dodge the frontier police who have orders to crack down hard and fast on anyone with wet trouser legs). And in tugged Czechoslovakia, a growing number of desperate youngsters are ready to risk the hazardous night trek across the mountains that mark the German border. In most cases the first target is Berlin. From there, though, they are ready to head anywhere that they see a chance to earn a precarious living. Usually they can expect to end up, at best, among the sweat shops, cheap cafes and few-questions asked building sites that make up the shadow economy.

But it is North Africa, even more than the crumbling former Soviet empire, that keeps immigration officials (and their sponsoring ministers) awake at night. For every desperately poor Albanian who takes ship across the Adriatic to face the truncheons and tear gas of the Italian police there are a thousand Egyptians, Moroccans, Mauretanians and Tunisians ready to hazard a similar journey. The European Commission has a statistical model, set up in an attempt to measure the cumulative pressure likely to be generated by its near-neighbours' exploding birthrates and static economies. It predicts, among other things, that the Arab countries lining the south shore of the Mediterranean will between them, by the year 2000, have something like 100 million more mouths to feed than they can hope to support.

That alone dwarves the scale of anything seen so far. Even with 8.2 million legal immigrants - 2.5% of the total EC population - and maybe another 3 million estimated to be hanging on with inadequate or out-of-date documentation, there is already a rising tide of xenographic rejection, especially in France and Italy. Spain, a favoured point of entry, is subject to sustained diplomatic barracking because of its alleged laxness with 'travellers' whom it can expect to become someone else's problem.

But as the flood swells, no Community government can confidently look forward to escaping the strain - especially now the USSR has effectively dismantled all its formidable emigration barriers.

The guess is that up to two million Russians, Ukrainians and assorted Central Asians will head westward in the next few years, which worries the Poles and Hungarians as much as it does officials in Vienna and Berlin.

As 1992 approaches, that concern is magnified. With former EFTA nations like Austria, Sweden and Switzerland rapidly coming up for full membership, and a general commitment, at least on paper, to the principle of unhindered internal travel, an intense debate is opening up on just how far such privileges should be allowed to extend. And, even trickier, how could any restrictions actually be applied without wrecking the concept of free movement inside the EC.

The policy that Brussels is attempting to hammer out has four main ingredients: more effective curbs to illicit entry; improved integration for those legitimately inside; more generous rules on political asylum; and a lot more aid to help external governments keep their hungry, frustrated citizens at home. All these have obvious drawbacks and the last, if it is to have any chance of working, would involve enormous, and probably unacceptable expense.

Some countries, including Britain, alongside Ireland and Denmark, advocate rules which would limit the benefits of EC membership only to those individuals who can claim full citizenship. But even if this could be made to work without reintroducing and extending the old system of frequent visa checks, it is full of pitfalls. 'Citizenship', for a start, is defined in widely differing ways. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Poles are ignoring such niceties and seizing whatever opportunities offer.

The easiest way in is to take advantage of their present visa-free right of travel, offering open entree to France, Germany or the Benelux trio (though not quite so easily to the UK) and then slip gently into paid but officially invisible employment.

The message has not been lost on other nationalities camped uncomfortably on the other side of the Oder-Neisse line. Psst, want to buy a Polish passport?

Peter Eilsher is Assistant Editor of the Sunday Express.

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