AFTER YEARS of obfuscation, the British government has admitted there may be as many as 570,000 illegal immigrants in the UK, a figure some experts believe to be an underestimate. The findings have triggered fresh debate on the question of illegal immigration throughout Western Europe, the principal destination for migrants.
Many Southern European states are now also holding contentious debates as they evolve from countries of economic migrants to desirable destinations for economic immigrants.
Italy and Spain have dealt with the increased numbers by introducing periodic amnesties for illegal immigrants. Here in Portugal, the number of illegal immigrants was so vast that, in 2000, the government offered a one-off legalisation period to workers with contracts.
Amnesties ‘legalise’ workers
but encourage criminal gangs
Spain, in particular, has seen its population rise by four million since 1999, representing a 10 per cent population increase, mostly Arabs from North Africa and Mestizos from South America. A recent three-month amnesty managed to ‘legalise’ 700,000 people who had previously been illegal in Spain.
But the amnesty, the sixth since 1985, was criticised at a recent meeting attended by the G5’s interior ministers, Europe’s wealthiest members. The country’s Interior Minister, José Alonso, was forced onto the defensive over the decision. “Spain is a sovereign country. As such, it is respected throughout Europe. Decisions taken by the Spanish government are good for Spain and Europe,” he maintained.
Supporters of amnesties say they clamp down on criminal gangs and illegal working practices, but critics argue that they provide an incentive for more illegal immigration. Governments have other ways of handling the influx, one being to ignore the issue completely, an approach backed by some economists who say the deflationary effect of hundreds of thousands of low paid workers is beneficial to the economy. The downside is that this encourages international crime networks to smuggle workers into rich countries and make them work under frequently appalling conditions.
Another option is forced deportations, a difficult solution as the British government’s experience on asylum has shown. In 2001, the UK Home Office was forced to abandon a plan to remove 35,000 failed asylum seekers from the country because it was simply impracticable.
Immigration is a potent
issue with voters
Governments, even the best liberal intentions notwithstanding, cannot simply ignore an issue as potent as immigration. But they are caught between a debate that is too often simplified on both sides.
Nationalist parties and sections of the popular press use deliberately inflammatory and derisive language, referring to immigration as “a problem”. “Bogus asylum seekers”, “hordes of immigrants”, “strain on resources”, “mass invasion”– all are loaded terms that presume immigration to be a detrimental phenomenon requiring either a prevention or cure.
Supporters of immigration have their own buzzwords and phrases too. Among their favourites is that immigration contributes to the “enrichment” of Europe and that racial and cultural “diversification” makes our lives more interesting. They will also highlight the dangers of “pandering to xenophobia and racism”, an accusation sometimes used to impugn the motives of those simply concerned about overcrowding and the cohesiveness of society.
Political parties react fairly predictably to immigration, although their stances on the subject are in some ways contradictory. Right-wingers, the champions of the market economy and the free movement of capital, are usually those most opposed to the free movement of labour. Examples include Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, the late Enoch Powell in Britain and Paulo Portas in Portugal. On the other hand, socialist advocates of a ‘controlled’ economy are the most vociferous supporters of an open borders policy.
Is immigration about race?
Is it racist to complain about immigration? Even Le Pen and Powell, perhaps the two greatest ‘bogey’ figures of the so-called extreme right, denied being racist. Instead they claimed to support the rights of different nations to uphold their own identity, citing their opposition to a cultural ‘melting pot’.
No doubt most opponents of immigration would emphatically refute the “racist” tag. But consider this question. If most immigrants originated from Scandinavia, rather than Eastern Europe or North Africa (two of the biggest origins of the current influx into Western Europe), would there be a chorus of denunciations and ‘concerns’? Probably not, because innumerable studies have shown that we have subconscious perceptions about our fellow human beings based on their varying shades of darkness.
Several developments have encouraged what now seems like an irreversible migration process: cheaper phone calls and air fares, the internet, the subsuming of European nations into a super state, enormous and conspicuous income disparities between countries and the abolition of border controls.
So it is very unlikely that, King Canute-like, we can reverse the tide and regress to a ‘fortress Europe’. On the other hand, politicians have to deal with unpalatable public reaction to immigration. So-called “white flight”, whereby white people escape urban immigrant ghettoes, is a phenomenon fast overtaking European cities as it has already in America.
Crime brings racial stereotyping
Each new wave of immigration brings with it new prejudices and recently we had an ugly example. When a Portuguese national, Hugo Quintas, became the prime suspect in the murder of his British ex-girlfriend, an ugly wave of anti-Portuguese hostility swept through the Wiltshire town of Trowbridge. It was utterly reprehensible but milder variations of this behaviour are, unfortunately, all too commonplace.
When a Ukrainian burgles someone, we may become suspicious of Ukrainians working on a nearby building site. A lone female traveller on the Sintra train line may feel uncomfortable when a group of black youths enter her carriage, particularly in the light of recent publicity about crime.
It is this difficulty in separating the human individual from his ethnic group that will form the greatest challenge to an increasingly multi-cultural Europe.