As the Global Economy Sinks, Tensions Over Immigration Rise

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Italian policemen try to block an unauthorized demonstration by would-be immigrants in downtown Massa, Tuscany, on Jan. 26

Contrary to some forecasts, the global economic crisis has triggered no measurable drop in worldwide immigration rates. For most poor immigrants the push to escape dire poverty and political conflict remains far more powerful than any marginal change to the economic health of the rich countries they're looking to get to. Once an immigrant has arrived, though, the tanking economy is playing an increasingly important role in their fortunes — not just because it's harder to find a job, but also because locals are increasingly hostile to their presence.

From Southern Europe and South Africa to Middle America and the heartland of China come a growing number of examples of both governments and individuals venting their frustrations on foreigners. Take Italy. "We have to be nasty with illegal immigrants," Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni declared this week. Italy's unemployment rate is expected to rise to 8.2% in 2009, up from 6.7% last year. The country, which boasts a 4,500 km-long coastline, is also on the front line of African immigration into Europe. Some 36,000 immigrants arrived on Italian shores in 2008, up from 22,000 the previous year, according to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. (As a measure of how desperate people are to get to Italy, at least 525 died trying.) (See pictures of the Venice floods.)

Midway between Sicily and North Africa, the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa has long been a prime landing spot for illegal immigrants. Last month, protests erupted over plans to build a second detention center on the island, as locals fear that an already damaged beach tourism industry will be further hit. (Read a TIME story about Europe's immigration problem.)

But the hostility toward immigrants extends far beyond the points of entry. On Feb. 2, an Indian immigrant was beaten and set on fire by local youths in Nettuno, near Rome. Last month, two unidentified men in Athens threw acid on the face of a Bulgarian migrant worker. Xenophobia and competition for scarce jobs was blamed for the rampages last summer in South Africa that killed scores of immigrants from Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

Some of these attacks can be attributed to simple racism, but it's also reasonable to assume that the economic downturn is causing greater competition for jobs and rising frustration among locals. British workers have protested the use of foreign workers. Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa has asked Microsoft to fire foreign workers first when layoffs arrive. The Italian Senate approved a bill Thursday that encourages doctors to turn in illegal immigrants who they've treated. Put simply, bad times fuel xenophobia. "History is full of cases of scapegoating triggered by economic crisis," says Francesco Billari, a professor of demography at Milan's Bocconi University. "Immigrants make an easy scapegoat: if you can't fight China, you can fight the Chinese at home."

Economic problems, however, have also served as some disincentive to immigrants, who may rethink decisions to move to countries where prosperity has been fast evaporating. Thousands of Polish émigrés have left Britain for home over the past year, for instance, while the number of Mexicans moving to the United States has slowed from 14.6 per 1000 residents to 8.4 over the past two years.

But the grim state of the global economy is unlikely to prompt any big decrease in the number of mostly poor people setting out for the promise of foreign shores around the globe. "The world's basic stock of 200 million migrants hasn't really changed, and isn't likely to change," says Jemini Pandya of the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration, citing the estimate for the total number of people living in countries other than their place of birth. "There is a structural need for migrants, and that doesn't go away because of economic problems in the developed world. There will still be jobs that locals don't want to do or don't have skills to do." (See pictures of America's hidden workforce.)

For many of the world's poor, a life in Europe or the U.S., even in the middle of a severe economic downturn, is vastly preferable to the poverty, war or religious and ethnic persecution they might experience in their own country. "It's not where you're going that matters as much as where you're coming from," says William Spindler of the U.N.'s refugee agency. "It's usually the push factor that is decisive, whether you're talking about refugees or people looking for work." (See pictures of the force behind the Gulf Boom.)

And as economic pressures increase, the potential for conflict clearly grows also. "Traditionally ... migrants don't compete for [the] same jobs as native populations," says Pandya. "But the moment [those native-born] people think they have to find any job, they will be in direct competition with migrants. That's where friction arises."

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