Refugees pay a high price as Europe raises the drawbridge: Andrew Marshall in Strasbourg reports on the cruel trafficking of human beings

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WHEN 600 Romanians pitched up at the Finnish border, they were in for a big surprise. They clutched documents purchased for up to dollars 1,000 ( pounds 645) apiece, which they believed were work permits and visas. The Finnish authorities knew better: what they had bought were day visas to a town in Estonia, entitling the Romanians to nothing more than free entry into a few museums.

This cruel parody of international tourism is just one example of the trafficking in human beings that has become a daily part of life in Europe. The example comes from a report by the Council of Europe, the human rights body based in Strasbourg. The tragedy is that European Community policies are helping to promote it, and jeopardising the lives of those fleeing persecution in the process, according to Amnesty International.

Western Europe has become a magnet for those seeking prosperity or protection. People are being charged exorbitant sums, tricked and left to fend for themselves before being caught and shipped back. Others are even less fortunate. Thrown into rubber boats, they drift at sea and sometimes die, like the 29 Iraqi Catholics who drowned in the Aegean last year.

The scam is run by networks of sharp operators, but also by sophisticated Western companies, behind the cover of tourist bureaux, shipping companies or camping sites. Many have links with organised crime, drug trafficking, prostitution, human organ sales and illegal adoptions, according to the Council of Europe. The going rate is about dollars 2,500 to get from Asia or Africa to Europe; or about 2,000 German marks ( pounds 820) from Eastern Europe. The networks have radios, ships, cars, and 'an army of agents', the report says.

The other side of this grim traffic is the human slavery into which many of the immigrants enter when they arrive in Europe. Prostitution is common; others are simply sent to work for low wages, in poor conditions. There is considerable demand for them in the agriculture, construction and services sectors, where wage levels are too low to attract local labour. Some sell their very identity, agreeing to 'die' by giving their documents to criminals, according to the Council.

Nobody knows how many illegal immigrants there are in Europe: one estimate, by the International Labour Office, puts the figure at 2.5 million, but the figure could easily be double that. They come from Yugoslavia, Turkey, Algeria, Morocco, Eastern Europe and, increasingly, the states of the former Soviet Union. Together they are citizens of an underground country, a secret member of the EC, with no rights and no protection.

The response of the EC authorities has been to pull up the drawbridge to stem the flow of migrants. Since many use (or abuse) the rules for seeking political asylum, they are also having to reconsider previously liberal policies here, too. Next week, when EC justice and home-affairs ministers meet in Copenhagen, they will tighten the rules on asylum-seeking, toughen their stance on excluding economic migrants and push on with their self-appointed task of sending back illegal immigrants.

The EC is engaged in a massive exercise of creating a cordon sanitaire. This just encourages the growth of clandestine immigration, says the Council of Europe. 'Restrictions have little effect . . . on the potential flow of migrants,' it argues. But these new rules will also place a crushing burden on Central and Eastern Europe, Amnesty International warned this week in an open letter to the EC ministers, and will lead to refugees being sent back to countries where they will be persecuted.

Last December, the EC adopted a resolution that asylum-seekers who had passed through a 'safe' country on their way into the Community could be sent back there. Amnesty says that it knows of 'cases where asylum-seekers have been sent back to 'host third countries' deemed to be safe and have been subsequently returned by those countries to countries where they have suffered serious human rights violations'. The very possession of false papers can be enough to expel an asylum-seeker.

Amnesty fears that the implementation of these ideas will 'put heavy, possibly intolerable, pressure on the still fragile protection systems of some of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe'. This leaves the EC open to the accusation that it is 'simply dumping the problems associated with large numbers of asylum-seekers on countries ill-equipped to cope', the letter says.

'Imposition of immigration restrictions by Western European states (mainly EC countries) has tended to increase the pressure of both regular and clandestine migrants on neighbouring states, including Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic, both as final destinations and as transit points,' says the Council of Europe report.

Caught in the middle are the refugees themselves, whether economic migrants seeking a better standard of living or asylum-seekers denied protection. That is just fine with the new slave traders: they find their profits in the lack of legitimate entry possibilities, and they exploit the illegal status of the migrants to force them into low-wage work. If the availability of routes into Europe goes down, but the demand for sanctuary and a better way of life stays the same, then a simple law of economics will operate: the price goes up.

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