Europe tightens up on immigration

Ahmed Mustafa , Tuesday 2 Jan 2024

Europe is upping efforts to halt immigration, making the lives of many immigrants living there even more challenging, writes Ahmed Mustafa

Europe tightens up on immigration


Immigration, legal or illegal, is a polarising subject in the public sphere, especially in Europe. The continent has seen a huge shift towards the political right, with this issue being at the forefront of many political campaigns and manifestos.

A few years ago, the concern was illegal immigration to Europe, but this year it has become immigration more generally, including legal immigration for work or study purposes. Illegal immigration and asylum-seeking immigrants are also becoming a bigger issue with the increase in geopolitical struggles in other parts of the world.

Many elections this year gave the political extreme-right in European countries prominence as voters turned to them as a result of their rhetoric on immigration. The EU received over one million asylum applications this year, the most since a rush of arrivals in 2015-2016.

Many European politicians and voters see the influx of migrants as a threat, despite a mounting shortage of workers in many EU countries.

Elections to the European Parliament in June next year will once again likely raise the immigration issue. The elections will likely shift the parliament to the right as voters opt for parties calling for stricter controls on immigration.

The campaigns to limit immigration, even legal immigration, come into conflict with human rights laws and international conventions. Some countries like Britain are trying to circumvent their international obligations to these laws and conventions. Some on the far right of the political scene in the UK are even calling for withdrawing from these commitments altogether.

This is so even as the labour market is tight in the EU and the UK, and many sectors face severe shortages of workers, especially in sectors relying on unskilled workers. There is also a demographic issue in Europe as a whole, with a good chunk of the population ageing beyond the working age.

With birth rates declining, some admit that the only way to fill the labour shortages is through immigration.

The UK Economist magazine published a report last month that estimated that “immigration to rich countries is increasing at its fastest pace in the 15-year period for which we have reliable data. Across the OECD [Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development], around 10 per cent of people live in countries they were not born in.”

The OECD comprises rich industrial countries mainly from across Europe. In a recent report, the OECD itself estimated that its 38 members had accepted a record 6.1 million immigrants last year. Over 70 per cent of immigrants across the OECD’s countries are in work, a number that continues to climb.

It is not only economic reasons, with people moving from poor countries to rich countries, which are driving increased immigration, even if a considerable number of immigrants seek better economic conditions. Average wages in the EU are now over 12 times those in sub-Saharan Africa.

Conflict in parts of Europe, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa is also driving millions to migrate. This has been coupled with grinding poverty, crime and gang violence that also pushes people to move.

The numbers wishing to migrate will only grow in the coming years, and some worry that climate change could spark an exodus. There is also a concern in the rich countries that is related to demography: as their populations grow older, they will need more imported labour.

For decades, net migration to a cluster of rich countries has accounted for a greater share of the total population than net births, according to Economist calculations. For example, nearly 15 million German residents, 18 per cent of the population, are first generation immigrants. That is a higher share than America at peak immigration in 1890.

Most European countries find themselves caught between a rock and hard place on the issue, with the question being how to balance the needs of economies beset by demography and tight labour markets with the delicate politics of immigration and asylum. The dilemma facing European governments, also a major concern for voters who fear abuse of the welfare system by bogus immigrants, is the distinction between real refugees and those seeking better living conditions.

Legitimate refugees are those unable to return to their countries of origin owing to “a well-founded fear of being persecuted” and who seek help through asylum systems according to international law. Anyone arriving in a signatory country to the UN Refugee Convention of 1951 may lodge an asylum claim, which goes some way towards thwarting government efforts to keep newcomer numbers down.

The EU countries and the UK are trying to circumvent such laws, or at least to be able to send back any newcomers to the European country they first entered from outside the EU. There is a common EU standard, called the “Dublin System,” under which asylum-seekers are supposed to be returned to the EU country in which they first registered. However, this is not always honoured by member states.

Some have suggested distributing asylum-seekers around EU member states in order to lessen the burden on points of entry, but this has been by a stern refusal by EU governments. Last year, Germany was able to return to other EU countries only six per cent of the asylum-seekers it was considered eligible to welcome under the Dublin rules.

After the big rush of refugees into Europe in 2015, mainly through Turkey, the EU struck a deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan paying Turkey six billion euros in return for stopping immigrants coming from Syria, Afghanistan, and other war-torn countries from entering the EU.

The same carrot was used this year with Tunisia to reduce immigration from North Africa into the EU via a deal of one billion euros.

Ultimately, this method of financial incentivisation is not a reliable one, however. In 2017, Nigeria rejected EU inducements to take back its people on the grounds that Turkey had struck a better deal a year earlier. At present, Rwanda has accepted to take on asylum-seekers from the UK, but the deal is faltering after the UK Supreme Court in London ruled it as not legal.

With elections now dictating policy in many EU countries and voters on the right more furious than ever about growing numbers of immigrants, European politicians are once again at each other’s throats over illegal immigration.

Border checks have been re-imposed throughout the supposedly passport-free Schengen area. Governments are reviving questionable ideas like offshore processing, and last month Italy’s right-wing government hailed a deal that would see Albania take in some of its asylum-seekers.

Facing a resurgent far right, Germany’s chancellor has been touring African countries seeking return agreements to fulfil his promise to “deport people more often and faster” from Germany. His approach contradicts his predecessor’s welcoming of refugees, which once made Germany an immigrant-friendly country.

Many European countries are now heavily in favour of also curbing legal immigration. That approach has been criticised by both businesses suffering from shortages of labour and politicians opposed to the political right.

This month, the French Senate passed a bill that will change the country’s immigration policy, especially for legal immigrants.

Among the 27 provisions of the bill, some make it more difficult for legal foreign residents to stay in France. The bill, which still needs to pass the National Assembly, the lower house of the French Parliament, proposes the quick deportation of foreigners representing threats to public order.

This is a vague provision that leaves it up to the authorities to interpret it in a possibly arbitrary way. It is similar to another provision allowing the withdrawal of residence permits for “non-compliance with the principles of the Republic,” also a vague provision that could be open to abuse.

The bill also includes provisions that restrict healthcare and family reunification for legal residents. It proposes changing the rules on French citizenship for children born in France. Under the current laws, children who are born in France to foreign parents are automatically given the right to French citizenship once they reach 18 under the droit du sol principle. Under the new bill, this will no longer be an automatic right.

Across the channel, the UK government is introducing a bill that makes things harsher for legal immigrants, though Britain is in dire need of foreign workers. A five-point plan to reduce legal immigrants by half is under consideration that increases the minimum salary needed to get a skilled-worker visa to the UK by almost half and making it difficult for employers to sponsor staff from overseas.

The plan also increases the health surcharge for immigrants by almost 66 per cent and increases the salary level for a family visa, separate from work and student visas, by more than double, making family reunification almost impossible for legal residents and British citizens. The plan also proposes reforming a “shortage occupation list” that identifies sectors in dire need of foreign workers.

All these provisions target skilled workers legally coming to the UK. Concerning refugees and asylum-seekers, the government has revamped a deal to deport them to Rwanda in an attempt to circumvent the Supreme Court ruling.

It is not clear if these financial levies and stricter rules will reduce the number of immigrants coming to the EU and UK. Even the danger of violating international conventions and laws is doing little to deter European governments, especially as the far right assumes more powerful roles among these states.

With many elections expected next year including a general election in the UK, European Parliament elections across 27 European countries, and other local and general elections, more immigration scaremongering is expected.

This will likely blend facts, half truths, and even blunt fabrications to sway voters in a way comparable to what happened in Britain in the run up to the Brexit referendum in 2016. Foreigners in Europe, legal and illegal, are destined to bear the brunt of this, with more stricter rules to come.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 4 January, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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