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Migration road

Gavin Hewitt | 17:13 UK time, Tuesday, 13 October 2009

samosmigrantap595.jpgI have arrived on the Greek Island of Samos to look at one of the main illegal migration paths into Europe. The islands in the Aegean Sea are the new front line, and Samos in particular has become the favoured entry point. Geography is the reason. Stand on the eastern tip of the island and you are only 1km (0.6 miles) from Turkey, where many of the migrants from Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq head to, hoping to make the final hop across the narrow straits.

From the Greek side, the green hills and mountains of Turkey climb above the straits. On the island there are a few unspoilt beaches, tavernas that offer fresh calamari, a chapel on a hill with its small cross and white-washed walls, and a military checkpoint. It is a tranquil place apart as the many Greek islands sometimes are. And yet most days, this narrow path of clear water tempts people to risk everything to cross it and reach the European Union.

The stories are at once bizarre and tragic. Afghan migrants have been found heading to Europe on the back of jet skis. The traffickers race across the water and then drop the migrants off close to a beach. Others have attempted to swim the straits, not understanding its currents. Some start out rowing, often without any water to drink. Most, however, set off in overcrowded inflatable dinghies. As soon as they encounter the Greek coastguards, they puncture the dinghy. In that one slash of the knife they are no longer illegal immigrants who can be persuaded to return to Turkey; they are drowning people and have to be rescued. At that moment of rescue they enter Europe.

samosbbc226.jpgAround 150 people a week on average make such a journey to Samos alone. Recently, a young couple brought their baby in the boat. They allowed the boat to be sunk, putting their baby's life at risk just to get to Greece. The baby went to hospital, but survived.

Desperation, money, smugglers. They are all at work here. Immigration is a growing challenge for Europe, where nearly 22 million people are without work. In the coming months, the European Council and the European Parliament will struggle with this problem. There is talk of beefed up border controls and a directive to make it easier to return migrants. There could well be measures to make it harder to grant mass amnesties for illegal migrants. Another proposal is for a "Blue Card", similar to the US Green Card, to attract more skilled workers to the EU.

Some are also pushing for "burden-sharing" across the EU; that other countries take in a share of the migrants landing in places like Malta, Italy and Greece. It is hugely controversial, however, as it touches on the right of nations to determine who enters their territory. Over the next two days, I want to test whether those policies are likely to work, and discover what is the dynamic driving this movement of people and how best to address it.


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