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March 1998, Volume 5, Number 2

EU: Kurds, Smuggling

Kurds. The arrival of over 2,500 Kurds in southern Italy in December, 1997 and January, 1998 provoked tensions between Italy and other EU nations and renewed calls for a common EU immigration and asylum policy.

Germany, Austria and other northern EU member-nations criticized Italy for three reasons. First, they criticized Italy's policy of not detaining unauthorized foreigners, instead giving them 15 days to leave Italy. Most Kurds do leave Italy, but many are believed to continue north to Germany rather than return to Turkey. Germany now has at least 500,000 Kurds from Turkey.

Second, Italy was criticized for appearing to welcome the Kurds. Italian President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, in his New Year address, said that Italy's "doors must be opened" to the Kurds "because they are living with persecution." The mayor of Badolato, Italy announced that his town wanted to "send out a message that all people who are persecuted, who are in need, should be welcomed in a dignified way."

In November 1997, fewer than 50 of the of the 800 Kurds who arrived on a boat applied for asylum in Italy, but half in January 1998 did so. Once granted asylum in Italy, Kurds and other recognized refugees can travel within the EU.

Third, many observers criticized Italy for acting unilaterally in welcoming the Kurds, rather than consulting with its Schengen partners. Border controls between Italy, Austria and France are scheduled to end on April 1, 1998, but they may remain in place after all. Germany stepped-up its border controls to prevent what the interior minister called "a criminal wave of migration." The premier of Bavaria complained that, under Schengen, Germany was "transferring the security of our borders to the Italians.... And there [is a question] whether the Italians have the same standards at their borders as we have at ours."

The UK announced that it was ending visa-free entry for holders of Turkish Cypriot travel documents.

Some criticized the EU for once again reacting to a crisis, rather than effectively heading it off by persuading Turkey to change its policies toward Kurds and by deterring smuggling. The EU on January 26, 1998 announced a 43-point plan to reduce the migration of Kurds into the EU, including humanitarian aid for the Kurds in Turkey, coordinating EU asylum and visa policies, and a pledge to fight trafficking in refugees by mafia-style criminal groups.

Italy has 5,000 miles of coastline. Many smugglers based in Istanbul send migrants through Greece and then on boats to Italy, or directly from Istanbul to Italy. Turkey in January began to arrest suspected smugglers and migrants in Istanbul.

Turkey reiterated on January 12, 1998 that the Kurdish illegal immigrants going to Europe are doing so due for economic reasons, not political persecution. The Turkish foreign minister said that there is "a general tendency for people living in low-income countries (to) wish to go to rich western countries."

Italy agreed to tighten its enforcement of immigration laws during a meeting in Rome of European police chiefs. The police chiefs agreed to guard external borders more carefully and to exchange criminal investigative information among EU members. On January 10, the Turkish interior minister said that 3,000 would-be illegal immigrants bound for Western Europe had been arrested.

The EU commissioner for external affairs said that the real villains were smugglers who took money from Kurds by promising them entry into Europe: "There's a sort of shopping around for asylum. The Mafia are making an enormous profit out of them. They are really fleecing the Kurdish refugees."

Germany's foreign ministry urged Turkey "to deal with its internal Kurdish problem, and that does not mean militarily, but politically." He also said that Germany "cannot shoulder the burden of the entire world. We cannot have something like asylum shopping where people can decide on their own in which EU countries they would like to live." About 80 percent of the 17,000 Turks who applied for asylum in Germany in 1997 were Kurds; 12 percent of them were granted asylum in 1997.

Turkey. Most of the Kurds arriving in Italy reportedly paid about $3,000 each for passage from Turkey to Italy; many make contact with smugglers in the Kucuk Pazar waterfront section of Istanbul. A Tunisian said that "people come to Turkey only to continue on to Europe." Turkey does not require visas from Tunisia, but France, this Tunisian's final destination, does.

Other Kurds pay $300 to $600 for rides from Istanbul to the 80-mile Turkish-Greek border, then they cross into Greece in small boats. If caught by Turkish authorities attempting to cross into Greece, most Kurds are released after a brief hearing before state prosecutors. There are an estimated 1,000 illegal immigrants in Patras. Greece offers temporary resident and work permits to some illegal aliens, and 20,000 foreigners applied.

Finally, some foreigners use Turkish passports and visas to enter Germany or France. Genuine passports, reportedly bought from Turkish police, have pictures and visas inserted for up to $3,000. In response to the EU, Turkey began to round up Iraqi Kurds in Istanbul in January, prompting UNHCR to express concern that Turkey may "arbitrarily detain or forcibly return" the Iraqis to persecution. Turkey requires asylum seekers to file applications with local police within five days of their arrival in Turkey.

A Kurdish organization in Paris said that the "Kurdish Diaspora" included one million Kurds in Europe, with 700,000 in Germany (including Kurds from Iraq and Iran) and 120,000 in France. There are an estimated 20 million Kurds in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

The Washington Post on January 7, 1998 reviewed south-to-north migration flows, and reported that some 120,000 Moroccans had arrived in Spain since the mid-1970s, that some 600,000 Algerians arrived in France since 1990, about 350,000 Bosnians moved to Germany between 1992 and 1995, and now Kurds are following Albanians to Italy.

Smuggling. The New York Times on January 11, 1998 reported at length on the smuggling of Eastern European women for prostitution, especially Ukrainian and Russian women sent to Israel and Western Europe. Some estimates are that four million people worldwide are trafficked each year, including 500,000 women to Western Europe.

According to the article, Russian crime gangs based in Moscow control the trade in Eastern European women. They find women by placing ads in local papers offering high wages in foreign countries. Some of the women know they will be prostitutes; others believe that they will be dancers or waitresses. In Ukraine, a country of 51 million, 20 to 40 percent of the people are unemployed, two-thirds of them are women. Wages average $30 a month in urban areas and $15 a month in rural areas where many women are recruited.

An estimated 400,000 Ukrainian women under 30 have gone abroad in the past decade and the Italian government estimates that 30,000 are working illegally in Italy.

Most reports say that extreme violence is commonly used against the women. Passports are confiscated, women are sold or traded, and those who try to run away are killed as an example to others. The risks to the smugglers are relatively low because prostitution is legal or semi-legal in many countries.

Women who agree to testify against smugglers are often held in prison until trial, while the smugglers may go free on bail. There have been proposals to give women who testify against smugglers temporary work visas or immigrant status.

Outlook. With many borders and large tourism industries, most experts believe that it is impossible to prevent illegal entries into the EU. The Kurdish crisis points out the inability of European nations to agree on a unified approach to asylum seekers. Furthermore, countries that find it difficult to process asylum seekers, and remove rejected applicants, may blame their Schengen partners, slowing progress toward an end to internal borders within Europe.

The EU's Swedish Commissioner, Anita Gradin, said that fears of inadequate border controls might complicate the entry of 10 additional countries into the EU as planned-- Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Cyprus.

Richard Boudreaux, "Neighbors Seek to Yank Italy's Welcome Mat for Refugees," Los Angeles Times, January 23, 1998. James Dorsey and Neil King, "Through Turkey, Immigrants Seek Western Europe's Promised Land," Wall Street Journal, January 14, 1998. Michael Specter, "Traffickers' New Cargo: Naive Slavic Women," New York Times, January 11, 1998. William Drozdiak, "Fleeing Kurds Cause Alarm In Europe," Washington Post, January 7, 1998. Paul Betts, "Italy faces diplomatic rows over Kurds," Financial Times, January 3, 1998.