Loathe Thy Neighbour?

Finding common ground in a sea of difference

Saturday 14 March 2009, by Marie-Adele Cassola

The heated debate over African migration
to the European Union (EU) is cast in
divisive, hyperbolic terms. Depending
on one’s national affiliation or political
leanings, the undocumented migrants
who undertake the journey across
the Mediterranean Sea from Northern
Africa to Southern Europe represent a
security crisis or a humanitarian crisis.
The solution is either to tighten borders
or to tear down walls. Migrants— and
Europeans— are caricaturized as villains
or victims.

These simplistic, discursive tactics
are effective at generating support for
either side of the debate. They also
deflect attention from the urgency and
possibility of developing a common
EU immigration policy that takes into
account member states’ economic
reality as well as migrants’ rights.

Those on either side of the debate
agree that the status quo is untenable,
albeit for different reasons. Migrant
advocacy groups deplore the loss of
life and rights violations that have come
to characterize the Mediterranean
migration phenomenon. The International
Centre on Migration Policy Development
estimates that 10,000 individuals have
died trying to reach Southern Europe
in overcrowded and poorly navigated
vessels in the past ten years. Those who
survive sometimes spend days adrift
while EU and Northern African states
deflect the responsibility for rescuing
them onto one another.

The United Nations High Commissioner
for Refugees (UNHCR) has stressed the
particular vulnerability of asylum seekers
in mixed migratory flows across the
Mediterranean. Among the thousands
of migrants from as far away as Somalia,
Sudan, and Nigeria attempting to
reach Spanish, Italian, Maltese, and
Greek shores each month, there are
many with a legitimate claim to asylum.

However, refugees and undocumented
economic migrants arriving together are
difficult to distinguish from one another
and are frequently given the blanket
categorization of ‘illegal immigrants’ by
receiving countries. They are treated
accordingly: as criminal entities with no
story and, all too often, no rights.

When undocumented migrants arrive
at their borders, EU member states
typically deport them or detain them
while their applications are processed.

Migrants have been turned away en
masse and forced to return to transit or
origin countries before they could file a
claim for protection, in violation of their
rights under the UN Convention Relating
to the Status of Refugees. Detention
centers are often overcrowded and
under-resourced, and Human Rights
Watch has noted several instances of
dehumanizing treatment of migrants,
including children, by border and
detention centre personnel.

Migrants who are granted the right to
stay in an EU member state face limited
prospects of economic and social mobility.

Critics of EU immigration policy view
the increased visibility of far-right, antiimmigration
political parties, the media’s
tendency to associate immigration with
rising crime, religious radicalism and
terrorism, and declining public support
for immigration as evidence that current
policies are producing an underclass
of African migrants who are shunned
by an increasingly intolerant European

Images of a Fortress Europe bent on
keeping foreigners out are provocative,
but not entirely accurate. They fail to
acknowledge Europe’s status as the
world’s primary recipient of asylum
seekers and do not account for the tens
of thousands of African, Chinese, Indian
and South American immigrants that
EU states receive each year through
regular immigration channels. Nor do
they consider Spain’s extension of legal
residency to 700,000 undocumented
migrants in 2005 alone.

Criticism of the EU’s Southern member
states must also be contextualized;
the UNHCR has acknowledged that
receiving countries’ capacity to cope
with the migratory pressure at their
borders is waning. In 2006, 30,000
undocumented migrants arrived on
the shores of the Canary Islands. The
150 residents of the Greek island of
Agathonis were overwhelmed by the
arrival of 4,100 undocumented migrants
in 2008. The Maltese government has
processed 11,500 migrants in the past
seven years— the equivalent of nearly
1.7 million newcomers to France or
Italy. Calls for Northern EU states to
share the burden have encountered
resistance, even while those countries
alternately criticize Southern states for
their porous borders and disregard for
migrants’ welfare.

The migratory challenges facing
Southern EU states are complex,
but they cannot justify human rights
violations, and granting asylum to
some does not absolve the EU of
its responsibility to others under
international law. An acceptance of
that responsibility must be the basis
of a far-sighted, structured and fair
immigration system that creates flexible and accessible channels for migrants’
and asylum seekers’ entry, residency
and employment in EU member states.

As low fertility rates and an ageing
population create a labour shortage in
the EU, a policy based on letting people
in is becoming an economic— as well
as an ethical— necessity.

It is therefore counterintuitive that even
as the current Czech Presidency of
the EU promotes a Europe without
barriers, the October 2008 European
Pact on Immigration emphasizes
heightened border security, fewer
mass regularizations of undocumented
migrants, and common procedures for
deporting migrants. Those aspects of
the Pact that promote legal avenues for
economic migrants prioritize temporary
migration and outline strict measures for
ensuring that workers eventually return
home. Encouragingly, highly skilled
workers would receive special residence,
employment and mobility rights under
a proposed ‘Blue Card’ scheme— but
these concessions are unlikely to affect
the migrants currently risking their life to
reach Europe each year.

Despite hard-won successes in certain
areas of supranational competency, the
EU is still a collection of member states
fiercely protective of their interests
and identities. This is never clearer
than when it comes to deciding who
gets in. To be effective, a common
immigration policy will therefore have to
go hand in hand with an earnest political
commitment to facilitating migrants’
integration and a public discourse that
fosters acceptance of diversity rather
than fear of difference. It means that
EU citizens must embrace the idea of a
common identity based on tolerance and
universalism not just in principle, but in
practice. This will not require any state
to sacrifice its security or its citizens’
wellbeing, but it necessitates a common
respect for the human dignity of those
searching for the safety and opportunity
that has been denied to them at home—
whether they come from Eastern Europe
or Sub-Saharan Africa.

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