Europe Rethinks its ‘Safe Haven’ Status

Sarah Wildman, Christian Science Monitor, May 24, 2006

VIENNA—The night air in Vienna has finally turned warm, filling the city’s trams with visitors. On the Ringstrasse, tourists take in the city, pointing out the City Hall and the parliament.

“Did you see that one girl—so young! And wearing a veil,” a woman clucks in lightly accented English, staring out the window of tram D. “They will form a separate culture.”

The sentiment isn’t isolated. Earlier this month, Austria’s Interior Minister Liese Prokop announced that 45 percent of Muslim immigrants were “unintegratable,” and suggested that those people should “choose another country.”

In the Netherlands, one of Europe’s most integrated refugees and a critic of radical Islam, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, resigned her seat in parliament in the wake of criticism that she faked details on her asylum application to the Netherlands in 1992. And France’s lower house of parliament last week passed a strict new immigration law, now awaiting Senate approval.

Indeed, recent rumblings from the top echelons of governments across Europe suggest that the continent is rethinking its once-vaunted status as a haven for refugees as it becomes more suspicious that many immigrants are coming to exploit its social benefits and democratic principles.

“The trend today more and more in Europe is to try to control immigration flow,” says Philippe De Bruycker, founder of the Odysseus Network, an academic consortium on immigration and asylum in Europe. “At the same time we still say we want to respect the right of asylum and the possibility of applying for asylum. But of course along the way we create obstacles for asylum seekers,” he acknowledges.

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In the years following the World War II, a chagrined US and Europe vowed to follow the Geneva Conventions and create safe havens for refugees. Yet such lofty ideals were hard to uphold after massive influxes of workers in the 1960s and early 1970s were halted during an economic downturn.

Those immigrant populations—often Muslims from North Africa and the Middle East—swelled with family reunification, yet often remained economically and socially distinct from the societies that had adopted. The image of the immigrant began to change, and distinctions between those who came for work and those who came for safety began to blur.

Now, says Jean-Pierre Cassarino, a researcher at the European-Mediterranean Consortium for Applied Research on International Migration in Florence, Italy, “asylum seekers are viewed as potential cheaters.”

Today, in once-homogenous Europe, tensions between immigrants and native Europeans appear to be increasing. The perception that an ever increasing number of newcomers—who neither speak the language of their adopted country nor accept its cultural mores—are changing the culture has increased support for ideas once only advanced by far-right political parties.

“France, Austria, and the Netherlands all have had very significant electoral success of the far-right parties,” says Michael Collyer, a research fellow in European migration policy at the University of Sussex.

Collier points to the success in France—also this past week—of a strict new immigration law proposed by Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. Mr. Sarkozy’s proposal would institutionalize “selective” immigration, giving an advantage to privileged immigrants of better economic and education status who are more “integratable.”

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