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Leading Article: It is time that we dismantled the dangerous myth of Fortress Europe

THE IMAGE of 227 Africans being held by coastguards in Tenerife is one that politicians throughout Europe would do well to study. This incident could be said to symbolise our collective failure to grasp what people will endure to escape the twin evils of poverty and oppression.

In recent years, the nations of the European Union have been making it increasingly difficult for those seeking entry from abroad, particularly Africa, to get through. Spain and Italy, whose coastlines are relatively close to North Africa, have tightened their border controls substantially. The navies of these two countries turn back boatloads of African immigrants on a regular basis.

But this has not stopped thousands of Africans braving the perilous journey across the Mediterranean. More than 7,000 made it to the Canary Islands from Morocco, one of the few routes that is still relatively open, in the past year. It is not known how many have died attempting these crossings, but given that many take to the sea in what are often little more than rusty tins, the number is likely to be in the hundreds.

The governments of Europe are fighting a losing battle to shut out those who would seek refuge or a better life on our continent. Navy patrols and surveillance technology make it more difficult for those who would undertake this journey, but they are not acting as a deterrent. These people are so desperate, they are willing to run almost any risk to reach our shores. The idea of "Fortress Europe" is increasingly a myth.

But it is a myth that European governments are finding very hard to give up. Our own Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, will today unveil a "five- year plan" for immigration and asylum. In it, he will propose a points- system for economic migrants and announce strict measures to prevent our asylum system from being "abused". The implication of this is unmistakable. The Home Secretary is admitting to the charge levelled by the anti-immigrant right that Britain is a "soft touch". He is attempting to argue that by imposing rigorous restrictions on entry we can determine, with precision, the numbers who come to our shores. We have heard the same arguments across the European Union, from Italy to the Netherlands. But one glance at the boatload of people washed up in Tenerife this weekend is enough to demonstrate how misguided this is.

The idea that the vast majority of poor immigrants come to Britain, or any other European country, with the sole intention of living on tax- payer funded benefits is one of the most pernicious of our age. It is also plain wrong. People flee tyrannies because they are in fear of their lives, not because they are hoping for a subsidised council flat. They run away from oppressive poverty because they want to improve their lot, not to eke out an existence on food vouchers. The truth is that, when they are finally allowed to work, immigrants are an enormous boost to our economy. But politicians insist on pandering to the popular belief that they are all economic parasites.

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have special cause to study the picture on our front page today. Both have repeatedly proclaimed their concern for the plight of the people of Africa. They have pledged to use Britain's leadership of the G8 this year to deal with the many ills that afflict that continent. But how can the Prime Minister and the Chancellor square their concern for the oppressed of Africa with the calumnies that the Home Secretary, by implication, will today heap on the heads of those among them who attempt to come to Britain?

Mr Blair and Mr Brown are right to stress Europe's deep responsibility to Africa. But we must also accept that, such is the misery of life in many African nations, there will inevitably be an outflow of people looking for a better life in Europe. These are the wretched people who are washed up on the beaches of the Canary Islands every year. Instead of perpetuating the old myths, we should welcome those who demonstrate the courage to make it to Europe's shores.