Some 70 experts gathered in Tunis this week to discuss ways of stemming the flow of humanity from poor northern and sub-Saharan Africa nations to the wealthier shores of Europe.
Successive waves of Africans, driven by unemployment and poverty at home, try to enter European countries illegally in search of a better future.
The stowaways opt for north-coast cities like Tangiers or Tunis - the closest points to Europe - for the perilous journey across the Mediterranean. Those who survive the trip then must evade border police before settling somewhere and trying to find work.
The meeting Monday drew representatives from 15 North African and European countries and 11 regional and international organizations and was designed to start a dialogue on how to curb the phenomenon. Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia blame the European Union countries for focusing on border security and instead want these richer countries to help solve the problem by investing in the development of North Africa.
"Cooperation has become, today more than ever, of paramount importance for all Mediterranean countries to settle the issue," said Brunson Mekinley, director general of the International Migration Organization.
Italian ambassador to Tunisia, Armando Sanguini, touched the core of the issue when he insisted on the need to tackle the causes of migration through economic development and partnership.
"The issue requires long-term development projects to generate jobs and promote the living conditions of the population in immigrant-exporting countries," he said.
The European Union has concluded association accords with south Mediterranean countries such as Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt that provide for the creation of free trade areas.
However, experts at the Tunis meeting warned that the move risks being counter-productive.
"The free exchange accords concluded with still under-developed nations are likely to lead to the closing down of several enterprises which would not be able to cope with stronger European ones," said Jean-Pierre Garon, a French expert in migration-related issues. "The closing down of firms automatically means laying off workers."
Experts also called on European countries to look after the immigrants who are legally settled in their territories.
"This cheap labor force, which contributes to the development of Europe, needs to be recognized and granted due rights to life in dignity," Said Bachir Znaidi, a Tunisian expert.
He deplored the situation of the immigrants as second-class citizens, prey to racism and segregation.
The media reports racist attacks by right-wing extremists who hate foreigners, especially those from North Africa. The latest incident was last summer in the Spanish town of El-Egido, near Almeria, where skinheads killed scores of Moroccans, looted their shops and set their homes on fire.
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