Culture and Economy Clash in Europe's Immigration Dilemma

  • Share
  • Read Later
Immigration is the subject Europe's politicians would rather not talk about. No issue generates more emotion, and few others seem as confounding to solve. Take a stand on either side of the debate, and you're bound to get burned. Vowing to act tough on illegal immigrants and false asylum seekers plays well in the heartland; but crackdowns merely send refugees underground, forcing them to take ever-deadlier risks to get in. Easing entry requirements makes good economic sense, since Europe needs 75 million new workers over the next 50 years to replenish its aging population; but try telling that to downsized factory workers in Stuttgart or Glasgow. And diversity doesn't sell in the E.U.: just 5 million of its 350 million citizens live outside their native country. The Continent's long-standing zero immigration policy seems premised on nothing so much as a hope that the problem will go away: if you build a Fortress Europe, they won't come.

But they're still coming. Flung out of their native lands by war or persecution or poverty—or simply the promise of a better life—immigrants are crossing Europe's borders in unprecedented numbers. Last year 390,000 people applied for asylum in the E.U. Britain alone received 76,000 asylum applications, up from 4,000 in 1988. An estimated 500,000 foreigners entered the E.U. illegally last year, five times the number in 1994. And as the demand to enter Europe has widened, so have the opportunities for traffickers who would profit from these masses on the move. Scores of immigrants now put their lives in the hands of feckless smugglers, with tragic results. Hundreds die crossing the Mediterranean into Spain each year; last week the corpses of 10 more North African immigrants washed up on Spain's southern shores.

The recurrence of such calamities appears to have convinced politicians that immigration can't be ignored. Last week justice and home affairs ministers from the E.U.'s 15 member states pledged to coordinate refugee policies to reduce the number of people falsely claiming asylum and staying in Europe illegally. That followed the announcement by the British and Italian governments that both countries would send their own immigration and police officials to the Balkans to help bust human trafficking rings, which are responsible for 10% of the illegal migration into Europe. On Friday Britain and France agreed to dispatch immigration officers to root out asylum seekers trying to slip across the Channel on the Eurostar. Meanwhile Britain's Home Secretary Jack Straw pressed for a tougher line against asylum shoppers—migrants who pass through several European countries before applying for asylum—and an overhaul of the international convention on refugees. Straw wants the legitimacy of many asylum claims to be determined before refugees start moving; he urged the E.U. to set up processing centers close to unstable countries and then distribute successful asylum candidates among member nations.

Those ideas would require plenty of diplomatic arm-twisting and would take years to implement. A common E.U. asylum policy isn't expected before 2004. Until then European countries will set their own standards, which isn't great news for immigrants. A new Spanish law that aims to crack down on smuggling also provides for the expulsion of immigrants residing in the country without legal permission. Italy has opened a broad front in its battle against illegal immigration: the government has established repatriation accords with East European and North African countries under which illegal immigrants apprehended on Italian territory are automatically sent back to the country they fled. The center-right opposition, which is expected to prevail in this spring's election, favors curtailing legal immigration and expelling the country's 180,000 illegals.

In the absence of a common E.U. immigration policy, governments are racing to the bottom in the level of benefits they offer immigrants hoping to stay. While refugee-rights groups have criticized Britain's Labour government for issuing a meager $50 weekly to asylum seekers, two-thirds of it in vouchers, other countries' policies are even worse. Germany, for instance, has slashed monthly pocket money to $40 and requires would-be refugees to stay in detention centers for their first three months. At a time of upheaval throughout the developing world, Europe's parsimony has done nothing for its reputation. Last month U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan criticized European leaders as anti-immigrant, and the U.N.'s new High Commissioner for Refugees, former Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers, says Europe has a substantial capacity to receive higher numbers ... but there is a lack of generosity.

If international opprobrium doesn't prod Europe to throw open its doors, there are signs that economic self-interest will. Last November the European Commission declared that "there is a growing recognition that the 'zero' immigration policies of the last 30 years are no longer appropriate." Germany announced plans last March to admit 20,000 foreign computer experts over the next three years, and Chancellor Gerhard Schrsder is pushing to expand this green-card initiative to workers in other sectors. Ireland has loosened immigration requirements for non-E.U. workers in technology, nursing and construction. Even Italy's government has introduced measures to admit 63,000 industrial laborers a year. Says British European Parliament Member Graham Watson: "Many states are seeing that in order to close the back door, we need to open the front door a bit more." Europe may still resist the idea that it is a Continent of immigrants. But in order to thrive, it has no choice but to become one.

Reported by James Graff/Brussels, J.F.O. McAllister/London, Martin Penner/Rome and Jane Walker/Madrid