Posted on January 18, 2007

Illegal Immigrants Cause Stormy Waters In Europe

Josh Gordon, The Age (Melbourne), Jan. 17, 2007

A group of North Africans line a crowded alley in the eastern Spanish town of Logrono selling fake designer sunglasses. It is the town’s annual wine festival and the area is packed with drunken revellers dancing to traditional Basque tunes played at an ear-splitting volume.

Suddenly police arrive. The hawkers whisk up the blankets displaying their goods and dissolve into the throng, sunglasses spilling onto the road. The crowd cheers.

A short distance away, a South American — one of thousands in Spain making a living through back-breaking labour in the wine region — plays Yesterday on the pan pipes. Adding to the somehow depressing montage, he is dressed as a Native American, complete with moccasins and eagle-feather headdress. Welcome to the Europe of the new millennium. While Australia mostly manages a steady flow of new migrants, benefiting from a virtually cost-free injection of educated workers (often draining poorer nations of their intellectual elites), countries such as Spain and Italy are struggling to cope with a deluge of so-called unauthorised entrants, many of whom are poor, uneducated and desperate.

Europe’s demographic problems, such as low fertility rates and ageing, mean more migration is all but inevitable. But growing public alarm about a lack of social cohesion, “ghettoisation” of suburbs, and the perceived erosion of “core” European values have been forcing many countries to rethink their approach even as the European Union expands eastwards.

“Migration is becoming a tough issue and Australia is in a pretty good position because it reacted early to some of these problems,” Georges Lemaitre, director for employment, labour and social affairs at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris, says.

“Australia has the advantage where the second generation, the children of migrants, generally do well. This is not the case in Europe and part of the problem has to do with the fact that migrants to Europe generally have low levels of education and skills.”

Given its often clandestine nature, illegal immigration is tricky to track. In Italy, a “regularisation” program in 2002 triggered about 700,000 applications, implying an average yearly intake of at least 175,000 illegal newcomers since the previous amnesty five years earlier. A matching program in Spain in 2005 indicated a similar annual inflow.

Unlike Europe, which has relatively permeable borders only a short distance from strife-torn Africa, Australia can largely choose its new citizens to plug skills shortages to help ease any future demographic squeeze.

Australia’s migration intake last financial year leapt to its highest for decades, with 131,000 arrivals. Numbers this year are expected to swell by a further 9000 to about 140,000. Almost 100,000 will enter through the skilled migration stream, the rest through the family reunification program. Australia, where 24 per cent of the population is foreign born, will also accept 13,000 entrants through its humanitarian program.

Overseas students with Australian qualifications tend to fare particularly well. About half the skilled migrants Australia accepts are people with local qualifications, Lemaitre says. “The path Australia has gone down is one that more and more countries tend to look at, and Australia did it because it found out that it was previously not doing such a good job at selecting highly qualified migrants with qualifications obtained elsewhere.”

About 27 per cent of foreign-born Australians have a higher-education degree (the highest anywhere, except the city-state of Luxembourg), compared with an OECD average of 3.3 per cent.

Although Australia is not without its tensions — such as the Cronulla riots of 2005 — the situation is far less confronting than in some European countries. The riots that swept across France in October 2005 shook the nation’s self-identity as a land of “liberty, equality and fraternity”.

Insurance companies estimate the three-week rampage, prompted by the accidental electrocution of two teenagers who hid from police in a power station in the poor Parisian suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, cost about €160 million. There were more than 6000 arrests, thousands of cars torched, 300 buildings damaged and 224 police injured. France’s European neighbours watched with horror, reflecting on their own social tensions.

France is now openly agonising over whether its “republican” model has worked. Under this model, collection of any information relating to a person’s ethnicity or religion is banned, supposedly to prevent discrimination.

Positive discrimination has long been frowned on in France; to favour certain ethnic groups would suggest that the core principle that all French are equal in the republic had failed. When Audrey Pulvar, a 32-year-old journalist from the Caribbean island of Martinique, became the first black person to read the evening news on a French national television station in 2004, it caused heated debate. French people were unaccustomed to seeing a non-white face reading the news.

Although there is little information available on migrant disadvantage, the French Government now acknowledges France is not a level playing field.

“Here in France you don’t necessarily know what the origin of a person is, because the law says you cannot make a distinction,” says a senior adviser to Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who did not want to be named. “But obviously there is discrimination and serious disadvantage among certain groups and perhaps we need to think carefully about this.”

The rapid expansion of the EU has also created tensions, triggering big flows of workers from east to west and imposing a great financial burden on members.

The recent entry of former communist nations Romania and Bulgaria to the EU brings the total number of member countries to 27, compared with just 15 in 2004. More than 40 per cent of all member states are now net recipients of funds.

“The cake is not increasing, so the cake has to be redistributed,” says Peter Rondorf, head of the Division for EU Enlargement in Berlin.

“Now all of a sudden you have only net recipients (of funds) which are far off the economic standards of the West.”

Already there are more than 60,000 Romanians living in Spain (compared with just 3000 in 1999), more than 200,000 in Italy and 11,000 in Austria. Romania is now complaining of a serious lack of skilled workers as a result of the exodus.