Europes political leaders seem to be suffering from acute panic over the subject of immigration. The troubles in North Africa have raised the spectre of hundreds of thousands of destitute Libyans and Tunisians, and perhaps tomorrow Algerians as well, not to mention sub-Saharan Africans, besieging Europes shores in search of security, jobs, a better life - and welfare benefits. The alarm was sounded when, in the first three months of this year, some 26,000 young Libyans and Tunisians, escaping from the upheavals in their own countries, crossed the Mediterranean in makeshift boats to the small Italian island of Lampedusa, threatening to swamp its normal population of about five thousand. Fearing that this trickle might become a flood, Italys Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi spoke of the danger of a 'human tsunami. Right-wing members of his coalition called for the forced repatriation of the migrants as well as an Italian naval blockade to intercept and turn back incoming boats. In struggling to cope with the Lampedusa crisis, Italy appealed for help to other European countries. But no country agreed to share the burden. To Italys anger and disappointment, European solidarity was lacking. Germanys Minister of Interior, Hans-Peter Friedrich, was quoted as saying that Italy must deal with the problem on its own. Faced with this situation, Italy decided to give the Lampedusa refugees a temporary six-month residence permit which, in theory, allowed them to move freely within the Schengen area - that is to say the 25 European countries which had eliminated border controls under the Schengen Agreement of 1985. But when trains carrying some of these North Africans arrived at the French border last weekend, the French authorities refused to let them in. An indignant Italy accused France of failing to live up to its European commitments. Once considered a foundation stone of European unity, the Schengen agreement is now viewed by many not least in France - as a grave liability. With nationalism rearing its head in several European countries, pressure is building up to restore border controls in some form or another. One new statistic, much quoted in the press, has caused particular alarm in Europe: It is that more than 500,000 persons - out of Libyas total population of about 6.5 million - have fled the country to avoid the fighting. Were they heading for Europe? What most of the reports did not made clear was that the great majority of these escapees were not Libyans at all, but rather migrant workers - Egyptians, Tunisians, Chadians, Filipinos and other nationals - who had no ambition or opportunity to come to Europe. They were only seeking to return as best they could to their countries of origin. They had come to Libya because there was no work for them at home. Victims of Libyas civil war, they were now returning - to inevitable unemployment once more. The crisis emanating from war-torn Libya is, therefore, not a European one, but rather a migrant crisis in the developing world. The whole subject of large population movements has led to frequent humanitarian emergencies - such as the present situation on the Egyptian and Tunisian borders of Libya, where refugees have been housed in tented camps. There have also been tragedies at sea. On a number of occasions, the various fishing boats and other fragile craft that attempted the crossing to Europe were caught in rough weather and capsized, throwing their desperate passengers into the sea. Some 4,200 people are thought to have perished in this way since 2003. Nevertheless, the xenophobic prejudices of Europes increasingly rightwing populations have now been aroused. The fear is that continued instability in North Africa will export chaos and an unwanted, destitute population to Europe. With elections looming in several European countries, politicians have had to adjust to the new climate. Facing local elections on 5 May, David Cameron, Britains Conservative Prime Minister, delivered a tough speech on immigration on 14 April, lashing out at the previous Labour government for net immigration of more than two million between 1997 and 2009. Last year alone, net immigration into the UK topped 200,000. Some of these newcomers, Cameron complained, could not speak English and had no wish to integrate into British life. Of the 2.5 million jobs created in Britain since 1997, two thirds had been filled by people born outside the United Kingdom. Camerons declared ambition is to reduce the intake to 'a few tens of thousands a year. Immigration, both legal and illegal, has long been a problem for Europe. Today, every country is trying to stem the inward flow. In France, where net immigration has been running at just under 200,000 a year, a special police unit has been created to uncover and shut down clandestine immigration networks. People enter on student or tourist visas and then stay on illegally. Forged papers are becoming ever more sophisticated and difficult to detect. North African workers brought in to help rebuild France after the Second World War have grown into a vast community of several million. Faced with the prospect of a presidential election next year - as well as the growing popularity of the far right under the leadership of the dynamic Marine Le Pen - President Nicolas Sarkozy has made clear that he is determined to curb non-European immigration into France by all possible means. Germany now has some of the tightest rules for entry. It is already thought to have close to a million 'illegals within its borders. They risk arrest if discovered and are denied access to basic medical care. Europe has long wrestled with the problem of how to prevent the conflicts and youth unemployment of the Arab world from being exported to Europe. The Barcelona Process of 1995 was meant to address this problem by channelling European investment to the region. But it was only moderately successful. Unresolved disputes - between the Arabs and Israel, between Morocco and Algeria over the Western Sahara - made the region less attractive to investors. In 2008, Frances President Sarkozys ambitious Union for the Mediterranean was intended to unite Europe and its southern neighbours around major development projects. But it too has foundered because of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and has now been virtually abandoned. To ensure a peaceful and prosperous Arab transition from autocracy to democracy, the oil-rich countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council should create a generously-endowed bank to provide aid and management advice to the poorer Arab states. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Europeans created the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) which has proved very beneficial to the newly-independent countries of Eastern Europe and to Russia itself. This is perhaps the model which the Arabs should urgently adopt. The democratic wave which has swept over Tunisia and Egypt, and which is struggling to triumph in Libya, Yemen and Syria, will need a strong underpinning of economic and financial help if it is not to collapse in disillusion and chaos. Middle East Online