Published June 2002
Not so long ago, Europeans migrated to the US, either legally or illegally, off in search of a better quality of life in the land of the free. With an estimated half million people entering the EU illegally every year, the tides have turned, and immigration is becoming the hottest political issue in the union. They come overland and by sea, sandwiched like beasts in container trucks, or clung to the underbellies of trains, or risking life and limb to swim it, from countries throughout Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia. The mind boggles at the social and economic conditions they leave behind, if life in a refugee camp in Europe seems preferable.
European governments seem unable to develop a coherent policy in the face of the tidal wave. In Ireland it only seems like yesterday when emmigration was the big social problem - as recently as ten years ago it was the main option for school leavers. And then overnight a refugee problem emerged and became the subject of hot media debate. In the 90s Ireland went from being one of the poorest countries in the EU to one of the richest. The massive, endemic unemployment of the previous four decades gave way to a brave new era of labour shortages in the low paid sectors: catering, agricultural workers. The new, affluent, well-educated Irish youth were not going to work in a kitchen or in the fields. The boom attracted economic immigrants from many countries but farbeit from the Irish government in its wisdom to match jobseekers to the available jobs. They were illegal so they must be maintained by the state, not allowed to work, while awaiting the lengthy and cumbersome legal procedures that would decide that the vast majority of them must be returned from whence they came. Meantime, boom time or not, in the streets of Dublin and other cities, great pockets of poverty and social deprivation continue to exist, increasingly unacceptable in the face of the flamboyant wealth in neighbouring communities. And in the classic spirit of divide and rule, the blame is laid more and more at the door of the asylum-seekers. Poverty and ignorance are fed a media diet of stories about the refugees that arrive dripping in gold, being provided with first class accommodation and not even having to work for a living.
If I were fleeing a cruel and unjust regime I'd try to get my valuables out as well - only thing between me and starvation perhaps. Many jews that were lucky enough to escape Hitler's Europe carried what wealth they could with them in the form of gold teeth and hidden diamonds. For some this secreted wealth was what bought them passage to safety. The second issue is one of accommodation. Ireland had never experienced immigration in any great numbers until the 90s. When the Irish go to London, or New York, or wherever, they will find an Irish community where they can find help and support. Irish cities didn't really have the equivalent - no Latin quarter, a tiny chinese community, no greek sector . . . As people arrived in increasing numbers the government decided to deal with the accommodation crisis by buying or leasing hotels around the countryside under a policy of "dispersal". At the same time they rescinded the right for asylum seekers to enjoy standard economic supports available until then to all as a right in Irish society. Instead of money, asylum seekers were provided with food in their accommodation and given a meagre 15 pounds per week (about 20 euro) in cash. It is difficult, if not impossible, to develop a relationship with the host community if you can't afford to spend money there - buy a newspaper, a pint of Guinness in the local, go to a football match or hear some live music - all of these things sum up the Irish experience and the immigrant groups were economically barred from participation.
In small rural towns and villages a hotel full of people that has no money to spend and can't speak the language creates a huge social imbalance. And, furthermore, the loss of the hotel as a source of tourism business is an economic blow to everybody in the community. It doesn't take long before blame for all petty crime is laid at the doors of the asylum seekers. Feeding these local fears is the emergence of an Irish national movement that has nothing to do with the traditional northern conflicts but focuses on Ireland for the Irish. A lunatic fringe issues paranoid and apocalyptic warnings about the dangers of immigration. They may not be gaining ground in the polls yet but their very presence is enough to ensure that the media bites get more and more strident.
The story in England is quite different, where racism has been a hot political topic since long before Enoch Powell's infamous Rivers of Blood speech. I've lived in the heart of the East End of London where chirpy cockneys are among the friendliest people on earth if you're white. Over 250 languages are spoken in London where racial tensions can be very high between different immigrant communities as well as with the host community. I recall my horror at the racism of one Irish woman I met who was angry because her children were not allowed to celebrate St Patricks Day at school but were expected to learn Urdu. From what I could gather, this was a fault of government policy rather than of the individual children in the school. For many years government in England went a little bit crazy about equality. Every job advert seemed to prioritise applicants from ethnic, racial or sexual minorities - which really got up the noses of the many English people, men in particular, who felt automatically barred by virtue of their birthright. This policy encouraged rather than diminished racial division - discrimination is discrimination whether you call it positive or not.
The latest from the Blair government is that they intend to build massive new holding centres for asylum seekers throughout the UK. This effective prison camps are intended to create an inseparable divide between illegal immigrants and the host community. Why any person that has any value on life and liberty would want to be incarcerated in such an environment I cannot fathom. For many of these immigrants, English is the "mother country", the country that stripped their assets during colonial times and now closes its doors to them. Many in England are appalled by these measures but their voice seems to be increasingly less effective - and they wonder why young people are turning their backs on politics!
Recently I arrived in France to witness the horror on the ground when Le Pen ousted Jospin from the second round of the presidential elections. For the next two weeks there were demonstrations and riots on the streets of the cities against Le Pen. As in Ireland and England, the issue of immigration has become a huge political football. While they worship their immigrant Zinadine Zidane they complain and protest about the drain the "sans papiers" (without papers) are on the social system. France is rightly proud of her fair and equitable education, health, and retirement system - but is becoming increasingly less generous about sharing it with others that may need help. Appealing to people's greed it is easy for cynical politicians to blame higher taxes on the weakest element of society. In the end of the day the french voters closed ranks against the extremism of Le Pen and opted to give a massive power base to a coalition of the less extreme right. It's fairly safe to assume that this new grouping will place reduced taxes high on their agenda which will place the social system under increasing pressure. In this environment it is also fair to assume that there will be increasing intolerance for any additional drains on the system - look out asylum seekers.
Over the mountains in Austria we are hearing scary stories about Hader. Perhaps the scariest is that he has successfully introduced legislation for a two-tier education system. There's one set of schools for the native-born and another for outsiders. When we arrived in France we went down to the local school and signed up for our children to start there the following Monday. From day one they went into a French classroom where they had to sink or swim. They hadn't a word of french when they started but that didn't stop communication with the other kids and they were immediately integrated in the playground. How long would it take them to get to know the locals in Hader's system?
Europe's success leads to new problems. Creating a common currency is a major step towards economic integration and increases its attraction as a destination for economic migrants. It's a fact of life that if you're a wealthy country, or federation, you are a magnet to poorer people. With a diversity of cultures and political regimes within the wider borders of the EU, developing a common imigration policy and the methods for policing such a policy is a political minefield. Within Europe different countries have traditional loyalties and relationships with a range of non-EU members. The UK has a special relationship for example with Australia and makes special provisions for Australian workers. However, Spain has no such relationship with Australia - maybe a compromise could be arranged. But if you compromise on Australia, what about all the other compromises.
This debate occurs against a backdrop where there is a drive to tear down the internal borders within the EU. If you remove customs checks at internal borders it makes for easier passage of European citizens throughout the union, but how do you spot the wandering Australian , or Nigerian, or Latvian if you don't have such border controls? I think we need to accept the right of individuals to live where they want so long as they respect the legal and social mores of that country. While we tolerated and encouraged the globalisation of corporate entities that showed no respect for our laws or institutions, we became increasingly intolerant and discouraging of the globalisation of the individual. In light of the financial scandals emerging in the US, perhaps it's a good time to take stock of our priorities and to focus more on the human rights and freedoms of ordinary people who seek a better life.