Lifting the Taboos on European Immigration Policy

Article published on Nov. 5, 2003
community published
Article published on Nov. 5, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Can we keep opening up Europe to new markets while closing it to people?

At the European Council in Lisbon, our Heads of State and government leaders decided on a strategic objective for Europe: to become the most competitive economy worldwide. Perceived as a model of economic success, Europe attracts migrants from countries to the south, who are increasingly subjected to various forms of political and economic hardship. Certainly, the social situation in Europe is no panacea. Social tensions, exclusion, and discrimination perpetuate themselves but the instruments of European social policy have not been making themselves felt. Nevertheless, Europe is still the fabled Eldorado for those who knock at its gates after travelling thousands of kilometres often in grossly inhumane conditions.

The European Union has a lot of difficulty defining its position regarding asylum and immigration. Because of a lack of a clear common strategy on these questions, we must content ourselves with reading between the lines or just letting the facts that speak for themselves contrary to the majority of documents coming from Brussels.

A few minutes from the entrance to the Eurotunnel, on the way to Calais, there is a small attractive township of 800 inhabitants; just beside this small village, Sangatte, is an immense hanger, a former depot for the construction of the tunnel across the Channel. Today this hanger, run by the Red Cross, shelters 1400 illegal migrants coming largely from Central Asia (Iraqis, Afghans, Kurds,) but also from Africa, Chechnya, and China. They are seeking to move on to the United Kingdom where they may benefit from less restrictive stop-over conditions, the possibility to work, and access to social services. In reality, if they manage to cross the channel, they will be feeding the clandestine labour market in the UK, a market that will exploit them and pay them less than the minimum wage for woring hours that any European worker would refuse. The lucky ones who manage to make a living wage will find themselves in a situation of material dependence (they have to pay back the smugglers who helped them over the course of their journey,) as well as psychological dependence on their employers whose demands they accept without question for fear of being discovered and deported.

Apart from economic migrants, another category of people faced with the incoherence of the current European system is that of asylum seekers. Despite tentative European efforts to address the problem (conferences in Schengen and Dublin,) the status of asylum seekers remains highly variable from one country to another. The living conditions and the reception of asylum seekers, the lack of information and advice, and above all the low number of successful cases are enormously discouraging for asylum candidates. They often prefer to abandon the procedure and turn to clandestine networks already established in Europe, through which they can be integrated into a community, find a job and so on.

Today in Europe, illegal entry is the only entry option for immigration candidates, with the exception of provisions for family reunification and the right to asylum.

To return to the economic aspect of the problem, a major contradiction exists between employment law standards, on the one hand, which are seldom properly applied (few employers of undocumented workers are actually prosecuted,) and the strict regulation of foreigners on the other. The severity of the conditions of entry to Europe, in effect, create the underground traffic; the loose application of basic social policy and employment law encourage the exploitation of undocumented workers. When we talk about clandestine immigration, it is generally to emphasize the criminal aspect (mafia networks, traffickers, crime, instability) or else to emphasise the humanitarian aspect, as portrayed in the media, such as at the centre at Sangatte. An emergency situation requires emergency measures.

Nevertheless, it seems more practical to look at the effects on daily life over the long term. What are European employers telling us about undocumented workers? A study on the employment of clandestine immigrants in the United Kingdom clearly established the motivations of employers: there is deficit of unskilled-labour in the restaurant sector. This deficit is attributed to a generational change: second generation immigrants go to university and seek better living and working conditions than their parents. It is for this reason that employers admit to calling on clandestine unskilled labour, which is also much more biddable and less likely to insist on labour rights which the immigrants are hardly aware of. In the clothing sector, clandestine immigrants are largely recruited to reduce costs: the employers pay them at a rate well below the minimum wage. This state of affairs underlines the necessity to offer a means of entry for unskilled migrants instead of focusing strictly on highly qualified ones.

Some hard analysis is needed at the European level to debunk the pervasive myth that there is a direct correlation between net immigration and the unemployment rate in the receiving country. In reality, basic economic theory views this as junk-science and considers the effects of immigration on the unemployment rate to be negligible. For classical economists, immigration is a factor that adds flexibility to the work market, and, as such, may even reduce unemployment.

Moreover, a serious statistical study is needed on clandestine immigrants in Europe. Even if this area lends itself less to precise figures, an adequate evaluation and response would be better than systematically taking restrictive measures and hiding behind the veil of “public opinion.”

This so-called “public opinion” is often more tolerant and mature than it is given credit for. Especially when demographic studies confirm the need for more workers in Europe. A recent report from the United Nations Population Council estimates that with current birth and death rates, 1.4 million immigrants per year should be accepted on average in the European Union between 1995 and 2050 in order to maintain the ratio of active to inactive population at 1995 levels. This report also mentions that net immigration to the EU between 1990 and 1998 has risen to about 857 000 people per year. This is the basis for the lobby to increase immigration to Europe, notably among certain employers associations.

This approach to immigration does have its limits, being essentially utilitarian in nature and viewing migrants as merchandise.

An egalitarian approach in terms of equal rights would seem more coherent with the democratic values of our European nations. The only way to fight underground immigration is to target its source: i.e. to provide more lenient terms of entry and give immigrants the freedom to choose which European countries they wish to integrate themselves into. In addition, loosening conditions of entry to allow more regular immigrants would unblock the bottleneck in the asylum seeking process, making it fairer and more efficient.

Moreover, if we want to live in an open Europe, where everyone has the right to settle and work in the country of his choice without suffering any discrimination, we cannot reserve this privilege strictly for the citizens of the EU and leave out the citizens of other countries. Without this principle, Europe’s big internal market is but a sweet illusion. It is also necessary to improve the state of community law regarding immigrants legally settled in the European Union to ensure that they benefit from the same rights as other Europeans in terms of the job market, social services and so on.

While the concept of the nation-state is looking a bit frayed by virtue of the concessions agreed to by member states (national borders, currency and so on) it is clear that the control of nationality (who it is given to and according to which principles) remains an essential pillar of state sovereignty. However these States are overlooking the fact that, according to European Community institutions and legislation, the regulation of foreigners in each member state is due to disappear over time (Section IV of the Treaty establishing the European Community, “visas, asylum, immigration, and other policies linked to the free circulation of people.”)

Is there hope of finding solutions allowing Europe to uphold the values it preaches? The approaches undertaken at the Schengen and Dublin conferences should be revisited. The European Union is one of the leading actors worldwide in terms of respect for human rights and the rule of law. This responsibility should not end where our immigration policy begins.