VIENNA, Austria – As pressure mounts for Congress to consider comprehensive immigration reform that would provide some 12 million undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship, Europe is tightening its immigration policies.
Several countries are passing restrictive laws in reaction to a growing dissatisfaction with immigrants, fueled in large part by the economic crisis that has struck the continent. Earlier this month, France began considering changes that would, among other things, increase detention times for undocumented migrants and castigate employers who hire them. Similar legislation that limits family reunification was passed last year in Spain.
To an extent, the recent political shifts reflect the mindset of Europe’s population. In January, the Pew Research Center published a report revealing that anti-immigrant sentiment is widespread in Italy. Eight out of 10 Italians wanted tougher immigration laws in 2009, and over 70 percent thought that immigration had a bad impact on their country. Sanctioned by such attitudes, “citizen patrols” were legalized last year in Italy. These civilian groups target predominantly immigrant neighborhoods in what they describe as a crusade against crime. Human rights groups call their activities racist vigilantism. In January, the tension around immigration erupted into violent riots in the southern region of Calabria.
Embattled by an economic crisis, some European countries are seeing their unemployment numbers skyrocket. In Spain, one of the heaviest hit countries, unemployment is almost 19 percent. An independent research center – The Migration Policy Institute in Washington D.C. – finds that “no strong evidence exists that migrants reduce wages or take native’s jobs…much of the public believes that they do.” (In the last quarter of 2009, unemployment among immigrants was 10 points higher than for native born Spaniards, or 29.5 percent.)
True or not, right-wing parties that are gaining influence across the continent capitalize on these perceptions in their campaigns. “It has been a good few weeks for the racists, populists and the right wing radicals across Europe,” wrote the British newspaper, The Guardian on April 8th. In the Netherlands, the party of Geert Wilders, who once likened the Qu’ran to Hitler’s Mein Kempf, made big political gains in recent elections; in France, the xenophobic Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front received 10 percent of the vote in the country’s regional elections; in Italy, the anti-immigrant Northern League also got a big boost; and finally, in Hungary, the ultra-populist and anti-foreigner Jobbik party received 16 percent of the vote.
In Austria, the Freedom Party head Heinz Christian Strache continues making gains in the polls as he stands firm on his anti-foreigner agenda. In his speeches he often links migrants to crime.
“You can win elections with fears,” says Gabriel Ruedisser, a former government-appointed legal advisor for asylum seekers in Austria.
“It is easy to simplify the issues and blame foreigners. If you start talking about the economy or other issues, it becomes more complex.”
Activists argue that the problem is that these sentiments and discourses, which were once considered fringe opinions, are now making their way into the political center. Austria’s conservative party OEVP and the center-left PSOE are adopting some of the agenda into their platforms in the hope of gaining far-right votes, analysts say. A recent report by SOS Racismo in Spain suggests the same for Catalonian politics.
And while each EU member state is living its own, unique predicament – a fact that has so far prevented the forging of a common EU immigration policy – although the new five-year plan Stockholm Programme sets out a detailed plan – some experts suggest that the immigration question in Europe has, in recent years, acquired a common face.
Yale Professor Seyla Benhabib suggested recently at a recent speech in Vienna that the Muslim migrant embodies Europe’s anxieties over immigration today.
Recent developments show that she might be right. Europe has approximately 38 million Muslims, who make up five percent of the continent’s population. France’s debate on national identity is largely focused on the integration of these immigrants, which is demonstrated in France’s proposed ban on wearing the burqa (full length Muslim veil) in public spaces; Poland’s protest against building of a new mosque in Warsaw; Austria’s recent poll in which the majority said that they believed that Muslims would “not stick to the rules” when it came to living there; Belgium’s vote on banning of the burqa; and Switzerland’s controversial ban on building minarets. All of these incidents suggest that the European immigration question seems be a question of Muslim migrants.
Most of these migrants used to be identified by their nationality – as Moroccan, Turkish, Algerian, etc. Today, the public groups them into a single, religious category often shrouded in a lack of understanding and mistrust. For the predominantly Christian Europe, Benhabib said, these Muslims become the “quintessential other.”
In countries like France, Germany and Austria where they form between four to six percent of residents, the state’s responsibility to integrate immigrants is often the main focus of political debate. In Spain, close to 12 percent of the population are immigrants. But a recent proposal by the government asks for a 30 percent cut in the integration budget.
Roger Koeppel, the editor-in-chief of the Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche says he believes that integration is a question of migrants’ will. “The foreigners have to do everything they can…to be integrated. The state can help, yes, but it is not the responsibility of the state to integrate people.”
Ironically, the European countries with the most heated immigration debates – Italy and Spain, for example, whose economic booms attracted migrants in the last decade – have traditionally been countries of emigration. They are also countries which have a low birth rate and rapidly aging population, which means they need young workers to sustain their pension systems and fill the workforce.
In 2009, for the first year on record, Germany had more people 65 and over than 25 and under. This trend will continue, said Armin Laschet, the Minister for Intergenerational Affairs, Family, Women and Integration of Germany’s North Rhine-Westphalia state. He added that in most German cities, 38 to 45 percent of children below the age of six are immigrants or the children of immigrants.
“Those children will be the elites in 20 years. When I go to pension, those children will have to work for the German society and if you discuss it like this, you see that is good that they have good education. Our demographic problem would be much bigger if the children were not there, so they must be a part of our society and that is a new feeling,” said Laschet.
“We need those young people, who live in our country, who have different roots, because we need them for the demographic change,” he added.