Immigration Issue Grips Europe ; EU Leaders Meet in Spain Friday to Strengthen the Continent's Immigration Laws

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Europe's leaders will seek this weekend to seize back the political initiative from burgeoning far-right parties by agreeing on tough new measures to keep illegal immigrants out of the Continent.

But their plans could lay the foundations for a "Fortress Europe" that ignores governments' pledges to shelter genuine asylum- seekers, human rights groups are warning.

"If we want to defeat xenophobic and reactionary attitudes, we must take citizens' problems and fears seriously," Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar told a meeting of German Christian Democrats earlier this week.

Mr. Aznar will be chairing the European Union summit of heads of state that begins Friday in Seville, Spain, and he has put illegal immigration at the top of the agenda.

That has drawn the ire of critics such as Amnesty International.

"Fear appears the driving force" behind the EU's new focus on immigration, the human rights group said in an open letter to the summit this week.

"In the current climate of fear and suspicion, the balance seems to be swinging even further to the point where human rights, and in particular the right to asylum, may be sacrificed," Amnesty warned.

Five hundred thousand people a year enter Western Europe illegally, according to EU figures. With citizens edgy in the wake of Sept. 11, anti-immigrant parties have capitalized on the mood to win unprecedented prominence.

In France, extreme right-wing leader Jean-Marie Le Pen stunned the political elite by taking second place in the first round of presidential elections last April. In Holland, Pim Fortuyn's party came second in parliamentary elections last month, largely on the strength of the slain politician's slogan that the country was "full up."

Antiforeigner parties have made their way into ruling coalitions in Italy, Austria, Norway, and Portugal.

Especially controversial at the EU summit is an Anglo-Spanish proposal to cut aid to developing countries that do not cooperate with EU members by taking back those citizens who are denied asylum in Europe.

That would be to put the cart before the horse, Swedish foreign minister Anna Lindh argued, after meeting her EU counterparts last Monday. "It is very important to have a partnership with thirdcountries to help them fight the reasons behind the influx of immigrants," she told reporters. "Threatening them is not the right way."

The idea has also come under fire from experts at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). "We need to take steps to keep people as close to home as possible," argues UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond. "It is irrational to spend money on detention centers and border controls in Europe without simultaneously focusing on the problems at their source."

The summit will also study nascent plans for a unified European border-guard force, which would patrol Europe's southern and eastern borders more tightly.

Although ideas such as the British suggestion that Royal Navy vessels patrol the straits of Gibraltar attract a lot of attention, migration experts say such ideas aren't much of a solution. …