• A Major Challenge for a Different Vision of the European Union
  • The Left and Immigration

  • By Marie-Christine Vergiat | 06 Dec 13 | Posted under: Antiracism/Migration
  • After the latest drama in Lampedusa, where more than 350 immigrants, mostly Eritreans, perished 600 metres from the Italian coast, the immigration policies of the European Union and its member states are more than ever under scrutiny.

    An evil wind is blowing on the European continent. Identities are glorified – whether national or European – and those that do not correspond to these presumed identities become scapegoats.


    Imigration in Europe: a long history

    The European continent is composed of a great diversity of peoples. European history is made of population movements, often brutal, of invasions that have left political and cultural traces. This is not a handicap. Quite the contrary. European people have known how to overcome conflicts by endorsing democracy, human rights and the rule of law, universal values that are the very foundation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. For several centuries, a number of European countries were countries of emigration. Beginning in the 15th century, Europeans sought to dominate the world and colonised large parts of it with the cultural, economic, social and environmental consequences that we all know. Only in the 19th century foreigners, perceived as non-nationals appeared on the scene. Until then, a foreigner was someone who came from elsewhere: from the other side of the mountain or any other natural barrier.

    Originelly, the three great countries of immigration at the core of the EU were, first of all, the United Kingdom, Germany and France. This was no accident. France was the first to invert the curve at the end of the 19th century (around 1880), starting with the intra-European population movements that brought, at first, many Italians, then Spaniards, Portuguese and Poles. Resistance to these European immigrants was no less than today’s resistance. To give just one example, in August 1893 at Aigues Mortes in the South of France, several dozen Italians were literally lynched by the local population, without any criminal indictments ever being served.

    Racism and xenophobia were already well-entrenched. In France, Spaniards were called ‘Penguins’; Italians were ‘Ritals’, then there were ‘Portos’ and ‘Polaks’. Reminiscent of the things we hear today about other populations, women in those days who dressed in black, covered their heads and ‘holed up’ in church were singled out for derision. Until the 1960s, people like this lived mostly in slums. In short, they were no more ‘integratable’ back then than Africans are today, regardless of whether they come from North or sub-Saharan Africa.

    When labour was needed to rebuild Europe after World War I and World War II, and then for the Thirty Glorious Years thereafter, the call went out to immigrants from other continents and notably from the colonies. This movement continued even after the independence of the colonies.

    But, starting in the mid-1970s, at the first signs of ‘crisis’, countries in Western Europe began to look at things differently. There again, the example of France is quite significant because, suddenly, the door to immigrant labour slammed shut in favour of what was called family immigration, only to allow workers already present in the country to bring in their families. Those who were already there, were, de facto encouraged to remain and to integrate, regardless of what politicians said at the time. This worked and it still works, witness, among other things, the number of mixed marriages. Many immigrant family members acquired the nationality of the country in which they lived. The stupidity of speaking of second or even third generation immigrants only serves to stimatise the populations concerned, particularly when it ‘curiously’ only applies to certain immigrants, notably those who are not intra-European. It would be better to see things as they are and stop feeding fantasies.


    The reality of migratory movements within the EU today

    In a world with 7 billion people, the number of those who migrate on a global scale is 220 million or 3 %.

    The number of migrants has tripled since the mid-1970s but global statistics are debatable, notably because a number of countries are either unable or unwilling to provide figures.

    Technological progress and economic globalisation have multiplied the means of transport, facilitated communications, shown how people live in rich countries, augmented capital movements and the transfer of funds1 and enlarged the transnational economic and cultural network. No wonder a growing number of men and women are tempted to move elsewhere. Since 1980, world trade has grown from 10 to 30 %. Why should freedom of circulation apply to goods and capital but not to human beings?

    Only a minority of men and women have true freedom of movement, while two thirds of world’s population are not free to move at all. Migration is primarily reserved for those who have the means or who can find the means often at the price of great sacrifice. Those who come North also are those men and, increasingly, women who have the intellectual capacity to envision life elsewhere. The ones who leave first are those with the best education. The majority, however, emigrate with broken hearts, out of necessity and not by choice.

    Contrary to certain received wisdom, South/North migratory movements (62 million people) are almost equal to South/South (61 million people) movements, but the conditions for movement in the South are more and more horrific.

    Today, 20.2 million foreign nationals from non-EU countries live within the EU, which has a total population of about 500 million people. Non-EU migrants, therefore, represent more or less 4 % of the European population. This is slightly more than the world average but still a very long way from the hordes of immigrants that are supposedly invading the territory – ridiculous, clearly, when compared with the 13.5 % of foreigners who reside in the United States or the 21.3 % who live in Canada.

    Now to be absolutely fair, it is necessary, of course, to add from 2.5 to 4 million so-called illegal immigrants to the number of non-EU foreign nationals within the European Union. But where does the fault lie, when it is a fact that the very great majority have arrived legally but have been placed in jeopardy when their work permits have not been renewed? How can we not denounce the fact that these so-called illegal immigrants constitute a malleable and blackmailable labour force that can be shaped and exploited at the will of employers in sectors where labour is otherwise in short supply?

    Moreover, more than 77 % of the immigrant population is concentrated in five member states. Germany is at the head of the list with 7.1 million immigrants on 1 January 2010, followed by Spain with 5.7, the UK 4.4, Italy 4.2 and France 3.8. It should be noted that these figures do not precisely reflect the demographic weight of these countries in the European Union. But they do explain how immigration policies within the EU usually are constructed, with a huge amount of disinterest on the part of most Member States and the obsessive interest of a few others.


    European Union immigration policies: the construction of Fortress Europe

    In the beginning, European institutions functioned, for the most part, to deter xenophobic tendencies and potential assaults on freedom. But we have witnessed a radical change.

    Borders slammed shut as Member States, at least those with the power to influence decisions, became obsessed with the need to control the EU’s external borders. This control has been increasingly transferred to neighbouring countries (especially Turkey, Tunisia and Morocco) while requirements for permission to enter the EU, especially into the Schengen area, as well as requirements for the delivery of visas have become increasingly draconian.

    Worse, EU aid to countries in the South has become more and more contingent on the readmission of so-called ‘clandestine’ immigrants expelled from the EU to their country of departure, regardless of whether they were born in these countries or were merely passing through.

    Fortress Europe is closing in on itself, flouting its international obligations, notably in terms of the right to asylum and open sea rescue: More than 20,000 have died in the Mediterranean in the course of the last 20 years in the face of almost total indifference. A legal security arsenal is being deployed with names like FRONTEX, EURODAC, EUROSUR plus the Dublin mechanism that allows Member States to deport so-called ‘rregular’ immigrants back to the country of entry into the EU. This shifts the need to provide ‘hospitality’ onto a few countries, essentially Greece, Spain, Italy, Malta and Cyprus, without the slightest manifestation of solidarity even though these countries themselves are trying to cope with severe social and economic challenges of their own. A ‘Directive of Shame’ or ‘Return Directive’ (Directive 2008/115/EC) has allowed the most security-minded Member States to use detention as the only ‘operational’ way to deal with the issue of irregular immigrants, as the United Nations’ Commission on Human Rights recently has denounced.2

    In parallel, a more and more utilitarian concept of immigration is being implemented with increasing categorisation of immigrants, especially with regard to their right to work, as a function of the short-term economic needs of the EU.

    A Single Permit makes an immigrant’s right to work conditional upon his or her right to be in the country. A temporary worker’s statute, highly precarious, is in the course of being adopted, while a Directive on intragroup mobility (to use EU jargon) favours the mobility of highly qualified salaried workers employed by large companies. It is hardly necessary to point out, therefore, which of these directives is most applicable to workers from the South.

    The European Parliament’s role in this evolution has been complex. It has warned several times against the abuses of Member States. Thanks to the Treaty of Lisbon, the Parliament has addditional room to influence European policies in this area, since it now has the power to legislate, along with the Council, on all questions of security and freedom. At the same time, the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights has become an integral part of the Union’s Treaties and enshrines respect for fundamental rights.

    Unfortunately, however, pressure from governments, in the name of reality or ostensible political realism, has led to a certain amount of renunciation. This is what happened at the time of the Parliament’s vote on the ‘Directive of Shame’ which ‘normalised’, at European level, legislation on clandestine immigration. One of this text’s worst provisions concerns the length of detention. So-called clandestine immigrants who have only infringed on an administrative regulation and therefore have committed no crime are systematically deprived of their freedom and are, in certain Member States, interned in conditions worse than incarceration. Allegedly because certain Member States’ legislation did not specify limits3, this Directive sets the duration of detention at a maximum of 18 months, three times the average length of detention in the most repressive countries. As predicted by concerned NGOs, this provision of the EU directive has led several Member States to toughen their national legislation.

    This example unfortunately is not an isolated case.4 Moreover negotiations between the European Parliament and the Council are more and more difficult. It has taken five years of discussion to arrive at an agreement on a Common European Asylum System (CEAS), now largely softened, containing numerous risks5 for asylum seekers, notably in terms of detention.6

    The latest drama off Lampedusa once more reveals the ordeal of these women, men and even children, who cross the Mediterranean at any cost. The European Parliament has voted a resolution7 to remind Member States once again of their obligations, notably in terms of international sea-rescue, non-refusal of asylum seekers, welcome of refugees, as well as the need to enlarge the ‘pathways to legal immigration’.

    But, beyond some nice declarations, nothing seems to be moving at Member State level. Quite the contrary, as shown by the Council of Interior Ministers meeting that took place several days after the Lampedusa drama and that ended with a reaffirmation of subsidiarity instead of any real solution. The Ministers were even ready to refuse the Draft Regulation proposed by the Commission for consideration by Parliament on rescue at sea8 – a final blow!


    Toward different European immigration policies

    At a time when the far right is making inroads, when, in several countries the parties of the traditional right are more or less openly flirting with avowedly xenophobic parties, the Party of the European Left should more than ever insist on its values and take up the challenge.

    Lampedusa has become the symbol of the failure of Fortress Europe. The policy that consists of closing off the borders is inefficient, costly and embarrassing. It just forces migrants to take more and more risks.

    Isolationism leads to nothing. It is even contrary to the interests of the great majority of EU countries that are confronted with growing demographic problems and of more and more employment sectors that suffer from shortages of labour.

    So, yes, solidarity is necessary, first of all, among Member States, but also vis-à-vis the non-EU countries where these people come from or through which they pass.

    This means a fundamental review of immigration policies, starting with the Dublin mechanism,9 as well as a revision of the ‘Return Directive’, which is at any rate on the agenda. It also means implementing solidarity agreements among Member States that are not solely financial. It means an end to making EU neighbouring countries into policemen and especially the refusal of any readmission agreement with countries that do not respect the rights of migrants, Morocco included.

    It means obliging Member States to fulfil their international obligations, notably in terms of rescue at sea and the right of asylum, as well as campaigning to see that they finally sign the UN Convention on Migrant Workers. So far, not one EU Member State has signed it.

    It means reaching out to those men, women and children fleeing from poverty, conflict or climate change against which the richest countries have shown themselves to be incapable of proposing the slightest effective measure, even though they are mainly responsible for the situation and possess the means to take action.

    It means adopting policies that respect human rights within the EU, as well as beyond its borders, and daring to say that all those who work here should be regularised, that children enrolled in school should not be deported and separated from their families, as the French government has just done with the young Khatchik and Leonarda.

    Even before defending the free movement of persons, we should first demand respect for the right to education, health, work and the right to live as a family. Demanding respect for the rights of migrants in these areas is to fight for all those who live in our countries in conditions contrary to the most basic human rights.

    The issue of migrants and of relations with the countries from which they emigrate is at the heart of the different Europe that we want to construct.


    Translated by Deborah Davis-Larrabee



    1. Immigrant remittances to developing countries are three times higher than aid to these countries.

    2. Special Rapporteur’s Report on the human rights of migrants. François Crépeau. A/HRC/23/46. 24 April 2013.

    3. For a variety of reasons, certain Member States, notably the Scandinavian countries, have preferred to avoid legislating in this area in order to respect the independence of magistrates.

    4. Witness the European Parliament’s validation of all readmission agreements between the EU and third countries submitted to it in exchange for hypothetical visa liberalisations for the nationals of these countries.

    5. See the recent legislation adopted in Hungary

    6. On this subject, see an excellent analysis by CIMADE

    7. europarl.europa.eu

    8. europarl.europa.eu

    9. Last June’s revision of this Directive is a stop gap. It does not fundamentally change anything, once again because of Member States’ opposition – see CIMADE note 6.

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