Europe's Unwelcome Guests | The Nation


Europe's Unwelcome Guests

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In the tolerant Netherlands, the anti-Muslim Pim Fortuyn Party was poised to win 20 percent of the seats in May's national elections before the assassination of its flamboyant leader convulsed Dutch politics. In multi-ethnic Denmark the far-right Danish People's Party won 12 percent of the vote last November and is now pushing for asylum laws so tough that the UN has complained. Austria's Jörg Haider and Italy's Silvio Berlusconi are becoming the grand old men of a new despotic tendency: As another rusty cargo ship full of Iraqi Kurds pulled into Sicily in March, Berlusconi decreed that his government would henceforth destroy vessels used for such transports. German refugee groups are concerned that September's elections will bring a new surge of racism to the European country with the most asylum seekers, the greatest reliance on foreign workers and the most restrictive citizenship laws.

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Maria Margaronis
Maria Margaronis
Maria Margaronis writes from The Nation's London bureau. Her work has appeared in many other publications,...

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Negotiations will rumble on, but the concessions Greece has already won could change the future of the eurozone.

But across Europe, the demographics argue a different case. EU consultation papers are peppered with references to Europe's need for foreign workers. The population is aging and the birthrate is falling; in Italy, it is now down to 1.2 births per woman. Even as Berlusconi rants about the foreign tide, the labor-starved factories of the north fill their assembly lines with Africans and Asians legalized by government amnesties. The UN has calculated that to keep the proportion of working to nonworking people at 1995 levels, the EU must take in 1.4 million migrants a year--more than the number who now enter legally and illegally combined.

The social democratic governments of Britain and Germany are trying to finesse the issue by opening the door to a few skilled workers while cracking down on refugees and other illegal entrants. In late March, a bill allowing limited skilled immigration squeaked through the Bundestag on a technicality; the conservative opposition threatened to take the government to court, even though the bill will also tighten Germany's already tough asylum laws. New Labour's proposed immigration bill makes a similar calculation, offering "managed opportunities" for some highly skilled and seasonal workers while proposing stricter border controls and a faster, more "streamlined" asylum process. Hence Yarl's Wood and its sister centers, built to deter the hopeful and speed the removal of unwanted guests.

As most of the world sinks deeper into poverty and wars flare up where cold war Band-Aids have been torn away, more and more people are driven to uproot themselves. Ten years ago, about 80 million lived outside the country of their birth; now, it's more than 150 million. Nearly 22 million are "of concern" to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, almost half of them children. Though Europeans complain of being "swamped," three-quarters of all refugees remain in their own regions. For the great majority there is no legal avenue to safety.

Like the anxious rich the world over, Europe is bent on protecting its assets while keeping a back gate open for the maid, the nanny and the chauffeur. Without new immigrants--many working illegally or semilegally for subminimum wages--the continent's economy would grind to a halt. If social democratic governments have trouble arguing for skilled immigration, the political costs of opening the front door to unskilled workers are even greater; besides, there are unspoken advantages in maintaining a reservoir of flexible illegal labor. As a result, the asylum system is under tremendous strain, not only from the growing numbers facing political violence but from those for whom it represents the only chance to escape poverty and social deprivation.

The International Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees celebrated its fiftieth birthday last year; it remains the most important protection for people fleeing persecution, despite claims by European governments (Tony Blair's at the forefront) that it has outlived its usefulness. But the world has changed since 1951, and the flexibility that has insured the convention's longevity has also allowed governments to narrow its force. After World War II, there were fewer than 1 million refugees in Europe, most of them white. In the years that followed, those who applied for refugee status were generally fleeing the Soviet bloc, bringing considerable political capital with them. But in the 1990s, more than 4 million asked for asylum in Europe, most of them from Asia, the Middle East and the Balkans--an increase of two and a half million over the previous decade. Meanwhile, the 1970s recession and unmanaged racial tensions had led most European countries to adopt an official policy of zero immigration.

The "solution" adopted by European governments has been to chip away at the convention's edges while continuing to pay lip service to its principles. The convention accords protection to anyone who has "a well-founded fear of persecution"; it does not specify by whom. France, Italy and, until recently, Germany have therefore limited its application to persecution by the state, excluding victims of civil wars and sectarian violence. The convention's signatories are only obliged to shelter refugees who have already entered their territory. Germany does not process asylum applications from refugees who arrive by land, as they have by definition passed through a safe third country to do so, while Britain and Italy take drastic measures to keep potential refugees from reaching their shores.

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