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Europe's Unwelcome Guests | The Nation

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Europe's Unwelcome Guests

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Yonas is worried about his cell phone. He keeps punching in numbers from a crumpled bit of paper, but none of them is the PIN he needs. His eyes are filling up with tears. "Please," he says, smiling desperately. "I throw it. If it not work, I throw it."

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

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Yonas is 14 and comes from Eritrea. Both his parents were killed in the war with Ethiopia; he left home by swimming out at night to where the cargo ships lie anchored off Massawa City. His only plan was to get to Europe, study hard and make money. He climbed up the anchor chain of a Greek ship, pried open the hatch and lay for three days under a lifeboat, coming out into the light as the ship was passing through the Suez Canal. The captain hid Yonas from the Egyptian authorities and, when they got to Pireaus, turned his back to let him sprint ashore. After four days Yonas met some fellow Eritreans, who brought him to the Nafsika hostel for asylum seekers.

The workers here have done their best for Yonas, but tomorrow he has to leave: Every few days a new ship pulls into one of Greece's island ports packed with exhausted Afghans, Kurds, Iraqis and Iranians. Without the phone the prospect of the provincial children's home where he is going becomes impossibly frightening. When a motherly volunteer reaches into her purse and hands a wad of cash to a colleague to buy him a new one, the relief on his face is almost childlike.

Yonas is one of the lucky ones. He has survived his journey; he has met people who care for him; and, as long as he stays in the children's home, he will probably not be deported. Migrants in Greece are prey to prejudiced officials and ruthless employers; most of those who land here hope to move up the underground railroad to Northern Europe. And yet Greece has its advantages. The pervasive administrative chaos and flourishing black economy provide chinks in which to build a (provisional) life. Xenophobia coexists with the habit of bending rules. Like most things, "Fortress Europe" is underdeveloped here.

Two thousand miles to the north, a young West African sits in the visiting room of the Yarl's Wood Immigration Detention Centre near Bedford. If it weren't for the extreme cleanliness, the reinforced doors and the guards with jangling keys, this could be a college common room. The carpet and chairs are a soothing blue; little shrubs have been planted by the towering wall outside the picture windows. Yarl's Wood is brand-new, a flagship for the British government's policy of locking up rejected asylum seekers--and many whose claims are still undetermined--before deporting them. Britain detains more asylum seekers, and for longer, than any other European country.

Very quietly, Michael Lawal tells me that he was brought to Britain from Sierra Leone by a step-uncle six years ago, when he was 16. He had just escaped from rebels who massacred his family in front of him. The uncle abused him; eventually he ran away. Last spring he was picked up by the police and has been in a series of jails and detention centers ever since. He has terrible nightmares and has tried to kill himself more than once. His application for asylum has been rejected. But right now he has more pressing problems. In mid-February, half of Yarl's Wood burned to the ground in a fire apparently started by rioting detainees; some may have died in the blaze. Michael says the violence began when inmates saw guards mistreating a sick and agitated African woman. Soon after I saw him he and about seventy others from Yarl's Wood were moved to ordinary prisons, where they are being held without charge in violation of UN rules. The government has admitted that Yarl's Wood was built without sprinklers, and firefighters have complained that they were kept from the burning building while guards tried to round up their charges. But asylum seekers have been so demonized in Britain that all blame has gravitated to the detainees, who have been lumped together as ungrateful arsonists.

Michael and his fellow asylum seekers are in detention so that they can be seen to be there--by the voters, the tabloids and the army of the poor. In Britain, as in the rest of Europe, immigration is now political dynamite. Jean-Marie Le Pen's success in France is the latest in a series of right-wing victories, from Portugal to Norway; anti-immigrant sentiment has played a part in all of them. After decades of failure to foster integration, the rush to ride a wave of xenophobia is bringing social democratic parties ever closer to their right-wing competitors. September 11 has made matters worse, giving anti-Islamic prejudice a new respectability and adding an edge of fear to social anxieties. No mainstream party has stood up against this trend: Tolerance and compassion are difficult to sell. As the numbers of would-be immigrants increase, refugees are tarred with the same brush as illegal economic migrants. Since there's no way to claim asylum from outside a country, they are forced to use the same clandestine routes, allowing demagogues to elide the difference in the phrase "bogus asylum seekers."

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.

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.

The legal hurdles asylum seekers must clear to win recognition have also been pushed upward. In 1987 Britain allowed 80 percent of asylum applicants to remain; by 1996, the figure was down to 20 percent. Increasing numbers are refused on grounds of "noncompliance"--that is, for errors in filling out the long form that must be completed in English within ten working days of application, or failure to attend an interview many miles away. Since immigration officers are under pressure to reject as many applicants as possible, interviews become a cat-and-mouse game in which the officer tries to catch the petitioner in a lie while she streamlines her story to fit the requirements. The requirements themselves are difficult to fathom. "With regard to your final arrest," reads a letter of refusal sent recently to a Sudanese woman, "the secretary of state would point out that he does not condone such actions. However, he notes that your public flogging has occurred on only one occasion, and therefore he does not accept that this in itself would constitute persecution." "If Jesus Christ came to Britain," one immigration lawyer told me, "he would not be given asylum."

As there is no Europe-wide policy on asylum, there is also competition among European countries to be the least attractive destination for refugees, though few of them have the luxury of researching reception conditions before they set out. As any British tabloid reader knows, the Red Cross center at Sangatte on the north coast of France is a base for migrants who nightly try to penetrate the Channel Tunnel, rushing the high wire fences of the yards so they can cling to the sides of freight trains on their twenty-minute journey through the dark. At times, efforts to stop them have completely stalled goods traffic, costing the freight companies and the tunnel operators millions of pounds. The British have repeatedly demanded Sangatte's closure; the French reply (somewhat disingenuously) that it is there because it fills a need. In fact, each country is desperate to offload its asylum seekers onto its neighbors. When Le Pen disses Blair by threatening to put Sangatte's residents on a special train to London, he is voicing the unspoken wishes of many more temperate leaders.

In 1999 the EU resolved to legislate on immigration matters and affirmed, at least in theory, its commitment to the 1951 convention. So far, though, attempts to "harmonize" asylum practice have mainly produced new measures for policing the borders--a Europe-wide fingerprint base called Eurodac, fines for truck drivers who unwittingly bring in stowaways, penalties for facilitating illegal entry. Since September 11 antiterrorist legislation has further restricted asylum seekers' rights as security takes precedence over refugee protection.

None of this stops the migrants from hurling themselves at the gates. Their journeys are not undertaken lightly. Hundreds have died on their way to the West, suffocated in sealed containers or drowned in the Mediterranean. The pinched faces of Afghans reaching for food as their ship lists in a Greek harbor; the panic in Michael Lawal's voice calling from prison, where white inmates have attacked him with boiling water; the grief of a woman from Sierra Leone whose children are growing up without her while British officials delay applications for family reunion; the despair of a Somali man who has won refugee status to learn that his wife has given up waiting--all these represent an infinitesimal fraction of the misery involved in "irregular" migration.

The smugglers who both help and prey on migrants come in many forms. Gazmend Kapllani, an Albanian journalist in Athens, sketched out for me the hierarchy of local entrepreneurs who help his compatriots over the border, from the embassy official who will sell you a visa for 400,000 drachmas (about $1,100), to the "taxi driver" who has an understanding with a border official, to the humble guide who claims to know the mountain paths. For long-distance travel, the fees are much higher: perhaps $16,000 from Peshawar to London by air, $10,000 by land, including fake documents, nights on cold mountains and some months in an Istanbul sweatshop. In many areas, smuggling is run by organized criminal networks that have "diversified" from drugs to people. Tens of thousands of women (children, too) are smuggled and trapped into prostitution in Western Europe every year, mainly from the former Soviet Union. The International Organization for Migration reckons that 500,000 to a million people are trafficked in Europe annually. While Western governments rail against the smugglers' abuses, it is obvious that the aggressive tightening of immigration controls only expands the market for their services.

It is not always easy to untangle the reasons why people take such risks with their lives. The 1951 convention and other legal instruments rightly distinguish between those fleeing persecution and those migrating for economic reasons; without that bottom line, no protection for refugees would be possible. In practice, though, the line can be difficult to draw. An Afghan reduced to starvation by war, drought and economic collapse or a Somali fleeing banditry and famine after the civil war blur the boundaries and raise hard questions about the limits of the West's responsibility. Yonas and Michael may not be fleeing present persecution in the strictest sense, but their lives at home are ravaged beyond repair. In Afghanistan, people will sell all they have to send one son to the West, knowing that if he makes it, his remittances will change their future. According to the International Labor Organization, $73 billion is sent home each year by foreign workers worldwide, significantly more than the sum of aid from rich to poor countries. The rich world is the end point of journeys that can take many years and pass through several countries; often, a person's circumstances will have changed radically by the time he arrives. The decision about whether to seek asylum may also be circumstantial. For every "bogus" Albanian who has used false documents to gain admission as a Kosovar, there is a genuine refugee who has decided to take her chances as an undocumented worker rather than enter the asylum lottery.

All over Europe, migrant workers are filling jobs the "natives" no longer wish to do for the wages on offer. Nele Verbruggen of Picum, a Brussels information and organizing center for Europe's sans papiers, reckons that the Continent hosts well over 5 million undocumented workers. In Greece, Albanians and Bulgarians keep agriculture going and bathe the aged parents of middle-class Athenians. In Britain, nurses from Africa and the Philippines sustain the National Health Service. At El Ejido in southern Spain, 30,000 hectares of tomatoes and peppers are harvested by as many Moroccans, three-quarters of them illegal, who live in cardboard boxes and lean-tos made of garbage bags and corrugated tin. When the Moroccans began to organize after a Spanish pogrom against them two years ago, the farmers began to bring in Ecuadoreans, Lithuanians and Ukrainians to replace them. The nineteenth-century "California model" also has adherents in Switzerland, the Netherlands, Britain and the south of France.

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.

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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