The recent instability caused by revolutionary change and military conflict in some Arab countries in North Africa has the potential to generate substantial flows of migrants into the EU. EU Ministers will meet on 11 May to consider what might be done.
Some migrants will be genuine refugees but many will be economic migrants. Anyone who sets foot in the UK and claims asylum has the right under the 1951 Refugee Convention to have his or her case heard and also has a right of appeal if refused. Applicants are supported by the taxpayer throughout the process which takes months, and often years. The UK's record in removing those whose cases eventually fail is extremely poor.
In theory, the UK can return economic migrants who claim asylum to the EU country in which they first arrived but that requires proof of their point of arrival which is often impossible to obtain.
The countries of North Africa are already struggling with large and rapidly growing populations; now 170 million, they are projected to reach 215 million in 2030. Youth unemployment rates range from 18% in Morocco to 31% in Tunisia, giving a total of three million young unemployed in Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia (no figures are available for Libya).
In recent times the Italians have circumvented the Refugee Convention by having the Libyan and Tunisian navies turn back economic migrants before they could set foot on EU territory. That arrangement is unlikely to continue.
There is now a clear risk of a massive inflow of economic migrants to the EU, many of whom will claim asylum. If this should happen we can expect much greater pressure on the Channel ports from those who prefer to seek asylum in Britain. The asylum system, already creaking, could collapse under the weight of numbers as it did in 2000 - 2002 when a peak flow left the Home Office hiding half a million files in a warehouse.
Commenting, Sir Andrew Green, Chairman of Migrationwatch UK, said "We must not bury our heads in the sand. We should build on President Sarkozy's proposal for humanitarian zones in North Africa to accommodate those who are displaced for economic or other reasons. This would make it easier for them to return home when the situation improves, as was the case with Afghanistan.”