Knocking on Europe's Door

  • Share
  • Read Later
Stroll through the streets of any city in Europe today, and before long you're likely to come upon an eclectic food emporium similar to the Marakesch Bakery in western Rotterdam. Nestled among halal meat shops and Arabic bookstores, Marakesch cooks up everything from wedding cakes and Dutch cookies to Moroccan meat pies. It employs 19 people, has three other branches in the city and expects to do $640,000 in business this year. It's enough to make M'Hamed Mahria, 37, one of the nation's most successful immigrant entrepreneurs—a designation confirmed by the Netherlands' Queen Beatrix, who noshed on the bakery's goods earlier this year. "If the Queen comes to your business," winks Mahria, "then you know you're doing well." Mahria migrated from Morocco 12 years ago; now he's something of a civic activist, teaching baking skills to troubled youths and serving on the neighborhood business association. Says Mahria: "Dutch people accept everyone who does a good job, who works hard and who doesn't cause problems."

There are two sides to immigration in Europe. The dark aspect revealed itself with gruesome force in Dover, England, last week, where customs officials discovered the bodies of 58 dead Chinese immigrants who perished while trying to enter Britain hidden in a container truck carrying tomatoes. But there is a shining side too, embodied by thousands of immigrants like Mahria who, in the face of restrictive immigration policies and souring public opinion, are creating jobs, stirring Europe's economy and transforming the face of society on an unprecedented scale. Last year the 16 million legal immigrants in Western Europe earned more than $460 billion. The number of self-employed foreigners in the E.U. has increased by close to 20% over the past seven years. In the Netherlands, the number of businesses owned by foreigners has tripled since 1986. In Italy, one-third of the labor in the industrial and service sectors is done by immigrants, though they comprise just 2% of the population. Chinese immigrants in Britain are more likely than whites to hold professional jobs and earn incomes above $40,000, while Britain's 900,000 Indian residents tally larger family incomes and higher rates of home ownership than the general population.

That record alone should have Europe scrambling to bring in more immigrants. Instead, aside from some allowances for seasonal workers, European governments have largely blocked entrance to economic migrants, forcing aspirants from Asia, North Africa and southeastern Europe—people seeking refuge or simply a better life—to try to squeeze in, illegally, through the back door. Many succeed, but the consequences for the countless numbers who do not can be horrific. The Dover calamity last week provoked outrage from human rights groups, which argue that barriers against admission force immigrants to place their lives in the hands of the organized crime rings that smuggle illegals across borders in squalid conditions. It also prodded E.U. officials to renew pledges to draft a common policy on immigration and asylum which could ultimately ease entry requirements for genuine refugees.

Opening Europe's borders would be more than a gesture of goodwill—it would also be an act of self-interest. Europe's economies are in dire need of extra manpower. A U.N. report released this year found that, because of a bulge in the aged population and declining birthrates, the E.U. will by 2025 require an influx of 35 million new adults to offset labor shortages and shore up creaking pension systems.

Immigrants can provide Europe with valuable resources as it enters the new economy, by filling the low-wage jobs that Europeans do not want, and injecting the technical expertise that Europeans do not possess. "Employers want more labor at a low price and people with money want more services—and it's difficult to see how that can come about with a declining population," says Joseph Chamie, director of the U.N.'s population division. "The sooner European governments look at migration as a solution, the easier it will be to adjust. It's similar to a leaky roof—if you ignore it for too long you may have to replace the entire roof."

The bad news is that many Europeans seem intent on ignoring the looming crunch. "The idea that immigrants might be part of the army of labor that will keep the industrial economy going hasn't caught on yet," says Christopher Husbands, a sociologist at the London School of Economics. Some governments have taken modest steps forward: Ireland is weighing proposals for an infusion of 200,000 skilled workers over the next seven years, while the German government has approved a law that will grant 20,000 green cards to foreign techies over the next three years, starting in August. But resistance to such measures runs high: in Germany this spring, Christian Democratic Union politician Jürgen Rüttgers, standing for election in North Rhine-Westphalia, attacked the move with the xenophobic slogan "Kinder statt Inder" ("Children not Indians")—though it did not help him to victory.

Not just the rhetoric is incendiary: violence against immigrants has flared this year in places ranging from El Ejido, Spain to Dessau, Germany. Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian Prime Minister and leader of the center-right Forza Italia, is pushing an immigration bill that would authorize patrol boats to open fire on boats containing would-be illegal immigrants if they refuse to stop. Swiss citizens will vote in a referendum this year to reduce the percentage of foreigners from 20% to 18%—a move which would result in the expulsion of thousands of legal residents. In the weeks leading up to last week's Dover disaster, Britain's opposition Conservatives had excoriated the government for going soft on "bogus" seekers of political asylum, the most accessible path of entry into Britain.

Europe's efforts to choke off legal immigration since the 1970s have done little to turn back the waves of foreigners trying to enter. In Germany, asylum seeking has ebbed since the Balkan wars, but close to 100,000 refugees a year still flow into the country. The number of asylum seekers entering the Netherlands has more than tripled in 10 years. More than 70,000 people seeking asylum arrived in Britain last year, up from 46,000 in 1998. This year, asylum applications have increased to nearly 7,000 a month. Many take months to process, fueling the perception that asylum seekers have spurious claims to refugee status and are poor, unemployable and a drain on social services. "Politicians realize there is a lot of political mileage to be made on this issue," says Husbands, "and they don't hesitate to travel down that road."

But while Europe's immigrants are initially more vulnerable to unemployment than nationals, the gap owes much to unfamiliarity with language and surroundings, and tends to close after a period of acclimatization. Foreigners are actually a net source of revenue for host countries: Hans Dietrich von Loeffelholz, a researcher at the rwi Institute for Economic Research in Essen, Germany, estimates that immigrants pay $150 billion in taxes a year, outweighing the $120 billion they receive in welfare benefits. And European jitters that immigrant labor will threaten the jobs of natives are unfounded. "It's hard to understand the fear of immigration in Europe," Chamie says. "The U.S. takes in 1 million immigrants a year, and yet unemployment is at a record low and the economy is booming."

In Europe, too, below the public bluster of the immigration debate lie countless examples of immigrants finding success, and acceptance, in their adopted nations. They are breathing an entrepreneurial air into communities throughout Europe. In Vienna, 13% of the population is non-Austrian, a number that unsettles some locals and provides electoral fodder for Jörg Haider's far-right Freedom Party. Vladimir Boras, 46, who helps run the Central European operations of McDonald's, moved to Vienna from Belgrade in 1992. "When I first came, this city was much more closed," he says. "Now there are ethnic restaurants, from Japanese to Cuban, on every corner. And the people are much more open." Boras recently applied for citizenship, and his family members already think of themselves as Austrians. "My son grew up here," Boras says, "and he too wants to stay."

Moroccan Taoufik Menai, 37, founded El Karama, a cooperative business in Reggio Emilia, Italy, eight years ago; from an initial investment of $450, the business pulled in over $500,000 last year, by assembling manufactured goods, such as hydraulic lifts, and even making salami. The company received no government assistance because it is run by immigrants. "So we learned to depend on ourselves," says Menai. "In Reggio Emilia no one gives you anything, but there is an entrepreneurial spirit. If you are good you can find a space." And that breeds respect. Fidel Mbanga-Bauna, a 52-year-old born in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the only non-Italian anchor at state television network rai, says that "Italians are not more tolerant than they were in the past." But in his office, Mbanga-Bauna is widely popular, owing to his affability as much as his reporting skills. "I'm proud of [my colleagues]. They have accepted me," he says. "I must give more than them. I must be very efficient and work twice as hard."

In countries that have limited experience with them, immigrants are introducing a new flavor. Cuban native Pepe Peña Brito, 30, was studying nuclear physics on a foreign exchange program in Prague when European communism collapsed in 1989. He returned in 1994 and partnered with a Chilean friend to open La Casa Blu, a Latin-American bar and gallery which aims "to provide a window through which Czechs can observe our culture and through which we can observe theirs." The bar creates jobs almost by accident. Brito employs 12 people, including eight Czechs, and foresees further cross-pollination. "On the Internet it already doesn't matter where you are from, what language you speak or what you do," he says. "I think this concept will translate into real life."

At companies like Intershop, a high-tech firm based in Jena, Germany, it already has. About 30 of the company's 370 employees are foreign nationals, hailing from Cuba, Vietnam, Russia and the U.S. "The experts who are really worth the trouble float around the globe," says Reinhard Hoffmann, Intershop's personnel director. "You sometimes hear more English than German spoken in the cafes."

But for Europeans, such products of globalization also tap latent fears about the erosion of national identities—and immigrants are a lightning rod for those anxieties. "It's very difficult to avoid the fact that there are still specific traditions in each country," says Jean-Pierre Garson, migration expert at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. But E.U. countries that opened their doors in the past today reap the benefits of a richer culture. And immigrants cleave to their identities as new Europeans. "My children are more British than the British," says John Matto, the 51-year-old owner of babywear business Grasshopper Holdings, who moved to England from India as a youth and is now worth $50 million.

In France, the Toulousian band Zebda, fronted by three Frenchmen of Algerian parentage, has fans grooving to ska, rap and rai-flavored songs that deal with race and integration. "There's a coming-of-age of a couple of generations who were raised in this hybrid French culture," says Mustapha Amokrane, one of the band's vocalists. "They are embracing immigrant influences and making them part of the French blend." That blend includes Bounmy Rattanavan, a Chinese who migrated to France from Laos in 1975 and, with his brother, now runs Tang Frères, a $114 million Asian food import-export business. Rattanavan's two children have French nationality but have studied Chinese in Beijing. "Europe needs young people with a dual culture," he says.

Over time, that cultural fusion will take some of the heat out of the immigration debate. But the E.U. needs better public policies too: a common asylum process coupled with more expansive measures to lure skilled labor to Europe and integrate new arrivals. A 1998 Dutch law requires newcomers to take 500 hours of classes that provide language instruction and tips on everything from riding the tram to enrolling children in school. There are 10,000 people on the waiting list—indicating bureaucratic holdups but a sign, too, that foreigners are willing to fit in.

Moving toward more sensible immigration laws will require citizens to acknowledge a shift in the definition of Europe itself, which the admission of perhaps half a dozen new member states as early as 2003 will only accelerate. It means recognizing that the Continent is enriched, not imperiled, by the presence of Europeans like Gregory Ibok, a 47-year-old Cambridge-educated Nigerian who moved to Poland in the '70s, fell in love with a Polish woman and never left. He now teaches English at a trade college in Lodz. Last year he founded a community group that helps other foreigners adjust to life in Poland—a life in a strange land that suits Ibok just fine. "I really like to live here. I don't have problems at my workplace. I don't even have problems with the food," he says. "In fact, any time I'm out of Poland for more than two weeks, I get homesick." That's one malady Europe should do more to spread.

—Reported by Dejan Anastasijevic/

Vienna, Lauren Comiteau/Rotterdam, Bruce Crumley and Nicholas Le Quesne/Paris, Helen Gibson/London, James Graff/Brussels, Tadeusz Kucharski/Lodz, Mimi Murphy/Rome, Jan Stojaspal/ Prague and Regine Wosnitza/Berlin