The simple truth about immigration and Europe's fears

Xenophobia: Newcomers could bring energy, and economic willingness, to countries that are stagnant and far from "full up."

May 07, 2000

"BOGUS asylum-seekers," bellows William Hague, the leader of Britain's opposition Conservative Party, are "flooding" the country, and Britain should lock them all up in detention centers until they can be sorted.

Germany ought to educate its own "children instead of [importing] Indians," roars his fellow conservative, Jurgen Ruttgers, the Christian Democratic candidate for this month's crunch election in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

The European popular imagination, it seems, is gripped by panic about foreigners: that there are too many of them pouring in, that there is certainly no need for any more. In short, that Europe is "full up."

Contrast that view, however, with some rather different observations.

Because Europeans are not having enough babies and are living so long, the European Union would need to import 1.6 million migrants a year simply to keep its working-age population stable between now and 2050.

With Europe's unemployment now falling, and its people increasingly sniffy about the sorts of jobs they are prepared to do, or too ill-equipped to do the high-tech ones being created, the continent's work force is in need of renewal as never before.

Immigrants tend to inject into stale, aging countries fresh vitality, fresh energy and an uncommon willingness to work hard at unappealing jobs.

How can Europe reconcile its economic need for more immigrants with its apparent political distaste for them? In an ideal world, there would be no barriers to the free movement of people, between the various countries as within them.

Indeed, one of the curiosities of migration is that, even where such barriers no longer exist, as within the EU, so few people choose to pack up their belongings, uproot their families, and trek off to settle in a foreign country.

But human insecurities are not soothed by economic and demographic logic alone, nor even much by clear evidence that migrants are needed. Europeans seem to need reassurance that their jobs, their culture, their sense of identity are not somehow under threat.

The question is how to create a more liberal immigration regime that can still be made politically palatable on a continent as prone to xenophobia as Europe.

At present, Europe errs on the side of mean-mindedness. Since the 1970s, it has more or less shut its doors to primary immigration: that is, to economic migrants who might later bring their relations too.

These days, many of those who settle permanently in the EU are the families of those who are already there.

Yet, just as Europe has been busy bolting up its front door, so those seeking a better life in the rich countries of the Union have increasingly resorted to finding ways in around the back.

Since the 1980s, there has been an upsurge in the numbers of people seeking political asylum, and - though they are difficult to measure - in the numbers of illegal immigrants. Genuine refugees from persecution, as defined by the 1951 Geneva Convention, should be welcomed in the EU without reservation. They should be confident of this welcome, and Europeans should be proud of it.

Yet, and though it is politically incorrect to say so, even a cursory glance at the numbers of asylum claims judged to be false suggests that many of those hoping to gain entry as political refugees are economic migrants in disguise.

This is not to say that asylum-seekers "shop around" for the best deal: research shows clearly that the chief reason they, like all migrants, head for one country rather than another is that they know people already there.

Even if EU countries were to harmonize their provision for refugees, as they have promised to do, existing patterns would probably change little. ... What the many asylum claims do suggest, however, is that a clampdown on bogus refugees by itself is only a half-solution.

In other words, economic migrants would not have to dress themselves up as refugees, nor to make those hazardous journeys crammed into the cargo holds of rickety boats or the containers of long-distance trucks, if there were an alternative way of applying to get in legally - with some hope of success.

If the EU were to install a more orderly system of admitting economic migrants - both the high-tech ones it needs to fashion its software and the less skilled ones it needs to pick its lettuces and gut its chickens - would that really curb the numbers of illegals getting ready to make their dash across the continent's borders?

That is one objection made by those who oppose the introduction of a more generous policy towards immigrants. It may be, they say, that today's image of Fortress Europe deters some of tomorrow's would-be migrants, and that a more liberal system to admit outsiders legally would only encourage yet others to slip in on the quiet.

If so, however, it is a risk that Europe should be ready to take.

A more persuasive objection is that any regime that concentrated on luring the highly skilled would run the risk of robbing poorer countries of the people they are least able to do without. Yet even poor countries can benefit when emigres send home the remittances they earn in the rich world.

Politicians face a choice. They can either pander to the fears of voters about being "swamped" by outsiders, or they can seek to reassure them that those worries are only half-founded.

As unemployment rates fall in most European countries, the task of reassurance ought to become easier. For the moment, however, Europe's politicians show little inclination to be brave. ...

The greatest pity of all would be if the EU's governments at last managed to agree to a more orderly joint system of immigration, only to appeal to the lowest, most illiberal, common denominator.

This article first appeared in The Economist magazine.

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