Shoehorn tunnellers highlight desperation of migrants

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The Independent Online

The desperation of would-be immigrants into the European Union was highlighted this week by the case of two Egyptian men who tried to enter Poland from Belarus by tunnelling under the border using shoehorns. The two men are to go on trial in Russia.

According to prosecutors, they decided against using a shovel, fearing that if they bought one it would give the game away.

Instead they used the shoehorns to tunnel under the Belarus border, which is separated from the EU member Poland by barbed wire and guard towers with sirens and search lights.

As in the best prison camp escape films, they broke through to the other side. But that was when their real problems began. Once in Poland, they got lost and ended up back where they started, staring across the barbed wire into Belarus. Believing they were now looking across into Germany, however, they began digging again - and soon they were back in Belarus.

Border guards arrested them and sentenced them to 10 days in jail. The Belarussian authorities then put them on a train to Moscow. But hundreds of miles short of the Russian capital they got off and had another go.

This time they began tunnelling from Russia into Ukraine - even though Ukraine is not an EU member. Russian border guards arrested them before they had the opportunity to find out.

Belarus has borders with the EU states of Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, and illegal immigration across the borders has become a serious problem. But this week most attention remained focused on the flow of immigrants by sea across the EU's southern border into the Canary Islands from the west coast of Africa, and into the Italian island of Lampedusa from Libya. Several thousand migrants have made the crossings in the past week. About 60 are missing, presumed drowned, after two boats sank off Lampedusa on Sunday, one of them after being accidentally rammed by the Italian coast guard.

The Red Cross says that more than 100,000 would-be immigrants are waiting in Senegal to make a crossing. Unemployment in Senegal is more than 40 per cent. This week, Spain and Senegal agreed on joint sea patrols to try to curb the migrant boats. Many die during the 625-mile sea passage up the African coast.

In Italy, the Interior Minister, Giuliano Amato, announced that he was setting up two task forces composed of judges, police and border guards to combat the trade, and demanded that those caught piloting the boats should get jail terms. But he admits that an effective agreement has yet to be reached with Libya on policing its waters.

Endless news footage of the leaky hulls crammed with migrants has kept Lampedusa and the Canary Islands in the spotlight. The flows into Lampedusa have prompted fierce anti-immigrant rhetoric, and leaders of the country's xenophobic Northern League have repeatedly urged the government to fire on the boats. Activists have offered to volunteer for a vigilante force to police the island's shores. At the other end of the political spectrum, far-left campaigners have threatened to lay siege to the island's notoriously over-crowded immigrant reception centre and close it down.

Newly published figures suggest that the importance being given to the sea arrivals is exaggerated. ISTAT, Italy's national statistics institute, reveals that only 15 per cent of Italy's illegal immigrants come over the water. The other 75 per cent, about 100,000, come by air and overstay their visas.

Figures are not available for the numbers arriving by tunnel.