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Europe's Unwelcome Guests | The Nation

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Europe's Unwelcome Guests

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Nick Clark, a policy officer at Britain's Trades Union Congress, argues that despite official noises about curbing illegal working, the British government turns a blind eye to loopholes allowing bosses to hire foreign labor on the cheap. Hotels in Central London import cleaners from the Baltic states to work for three-month periods on Baltic wages; because they are brought in by foreign agencies subcontracted to British companies, they are technically legal but unprotected by minimum-wage laws. Ukrainian workers are bused to Swindon outside London to work in abattoirs; Poles head for East Anglia to pick vegetables. Clark says the National Farmers Union would have a fit if employment laws were enforced: "The fruit would rot on the trees." These workers effectively have no rights; their exploitation also undermines legal workers, keeping wages down and making it difficult to unionize. The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers, adopted by the UN in 1990, remains unratified by even one wealthy country, though its provisions are minimal.

About the Author

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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A hunger strike touches on the the things all human beings share: the way pain and deprivation are written on the body.

The EU uses its border states as a barrier and prison camp for the frightened, impoverished people it would rather drown than save.

Europe's resistance to immigration differs in its history and culture from America's. As the writer Jeremy Harding explains in his book The Uninvited: Refugees at the Rich Man's Gate, even liberal Europeans are ambivalent about America's brand of multiculturalism, seeing it as the partner of unbridled capitalism: "Everyone pays grudging homage to the American model of cultural diversity, but European governments of all persuasions are dour about its advantages and alert to its dangers: cities eroded by poverty and profit; the cantonisation of neighbourhoods; urban and rural societies doubly fractured by ethnicity and class." In the last century immigrants came largely from Europe's colonies; attitudes toward them were inseparable from racism and resentment at the waning of empire. Now, there is plenty of change in the air to amplify old insecurities: European unification, the erosion of local communities by global markets, rising crime, fears of impending war.

The far right feeds on such uncertainties. But as the British historian Tony Kushner points out, immigration does not have to bring racial tensions: "The assumption that racism is a problem immigrants bring with them has never been adequately critiqued." In Britain, immigration laws have always been shaped to keep out groups considered undesirable--East European Jews at the beginning of the twentieth century, blacks and Asians from the "New Commonwealth" after 1962. Race remains a cheap vote-winner, a handy lightning rod for other discontents. In 1964 the Conservatives won a key parliamentary seat on the slogan "If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour," scotching for decades any impulse Labour may have had to take a more liberal line.

Even in those inclined to be sympathetic, the poor arriving on our doorstep arouse deep discomforts. Their presence makes demands; abstract moral responsibilities become concrete practical ones. Though the government is now arguing that immigrants contribute more to the economy than they take out, that case remains theoretical to Londoners worried about the number of languages spoken in their children's classrooms. On the southern edge of Europe, the demands are even greater. It is not so long since Greece and Italy were sending their young men to America and Australia to support families at home. Portugal still sends unskilled workers to Northern European countries. Yet in just over a decade Greece has gone from being a country of emigration to a country where one in ten people is a recent arrival--a greater proportion than in Germany.

Migration is only likely to increase. The movement of people across ever greater distances is in part a consequence of the free movement of capital, even though the loudest cheerleaders for the migration of money are often the fiercest opponents of the movement of people. Without a realistic and humane policy, Europe will become more deeply mired in an untenable fortress mentality; worse, deprived of the remittances of migrant workers, the majority world will sink deeper into misery and debt.

There are those--like Don Flynn of Britain's Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, who advocates open borders--arguing that Europe will not attract more workers than it can support. But even Flynn acknowledges that after thirty years of exclusion the gates cannot be suddenly flung wide. Legal avenues for low-skilled workers, with protection for their rights, would be a rational first step, taking the pressure off the asylum system and cutting off some of the smugglers' business. Independent boards to assess asylum claims might protect refugees from the exigencies of politics. The relief of Third World debt and the transfer of resources are essential for other reasons, but those who hope that such measures will stem migration may be disappointed: Research shows that it is often more successful communities that have the means to send people abroad. Like it or not, Europe will have to accept and integrate its new populations. Some politicians are fumbling belatedly with the challenge of building a multicultural society. It is a clumsy start, marred by a history of bad faith and made more difficult by pressure from the right.

In the meantime, European governments continue to allow employers the privilege of using cheap foreign labor while making asylum seekers take the fall for clandestine migration. Several refugee advocates I spoke to expressed fears that Europe is moving toward the "Australian model," in which those asylum seekers who manage to land are rounded up in camps like Woomera in the Australian desert. From there, the few who might be economically useful are hand-selected for admission. Europeans, of all people, should know where such thinking can lead.

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