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EU's immigration issues are more than just borders

EU politicians are in an uproar over immigration from North Africa, but the myth of "Fortress Europe" distracts them from actually helping the regional situation.

Of the hundreds of thousands of migrants who stream into Europe every year, 20,000 Tunisians have recently sounded the alarm throughout "Fortress Europe". But despite the fierce debate, Europe is not a fortress isolated from the region, nor is it in its interest to attempt to be one.

The influx of immigrants travelling from Italy's shores to France's heartland sparked a debate between President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi this week, ending in an agreement that stronger border security and immigration reform is key to ensuring greater European security.

But tightening restrictions to enter the 25-nation Schengen zone - which allows foreigners to travel on a single visa - is a reactionary measure rather than a sound policy decision; one that reveals the extent to which Mr Sarkozy and Mr Berlusconi are responding to right-wing pressure from political parties seeking to gain traction in upcoming elections.

Contrary to popular perception and xenophobic rhetoric, Europe's borders are not under siege by foreign migrants. France is in fact one of the countries least impacted by inflows. According to the French newspaper Les Echoes, there are three migrants per 1,000 French and eight per 1,000 Italians, as opposed to double digit figures for countries such as Switzerland and Norway.

But the debate highlights one of the most frustrating challenges of European integration: balancing freedom of movement with the need to ensure safety and security. The answer, however, lies partly in building opportunities for migrants in their home countries. Officials hope that France's recent $508 million donation to Tunisia for training, employment and governance will create incentives to stay in North Africa.

Undoubtedly, some migration is forced by North Africa's regional unrest - fleeing Libya is a life-or-death imperative for some. But emigrants from Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco are often leaving for economic reasons. There are opportunities in those changing societies for citizens who are willing and patient enough to invest in reform. Europe is not the land of opportunity, but of temporary gain.

It is understandable that Schengen nations are concerned with patrolling more than four million square kilometres home to more than 400 million people. But the Mediterranean is more than southern Europe, and the region can benefit more from expending effort in building bridges rather than walls.

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