Sun, May 07, 2000 - Page 9 News List

Europe in a quandary as immigration waxes and employment prospects wane

By Jonathan Power

Can it go on? Why should it go on? And, anyway, what real long-term benefits does it bring? These are the still unanswered questions that 50 years of massive immigration into Europe pose. The last 10 years the questioning has been relatively muted. The European economies under-performed and European governments finally, if belatedly, put into place common immigration policies that weakened a flow that was diminished anyway by the slackening of demand.

But the big questions from the 1960s and 70s are back with a vengeance. Economic activity is picking up fast and some governments, such as the Spanish, are letting it be known they are more in favor of renewed immigration. The whole 60's belief system is being dusted off: that immigration oils the cogs and wheels of the economy, especially the bit down below decks where the heavy lifting is done. Moreover, it was said, as immigration reduces labor bottlenecks, it counters inflationary pressures.

Thirty years ago Spain was a country of emigration. Today Spain is one of the fastest growing economies of Europe. Particularly in the south, in the agricultural areas growing hothouse winter vegetables and fruits, there is a great demand for cheap labor. Africa is near. For decades, Moroccans especially have dared death or captivity to make the 16km crossing of the Mediterranean at its neck. Now black Africans from as far away as war-torn Sierre Leone and economically unstable Nigeria are making the perilous journey through wild Atlantic seas to the Canary Islands. The papers in Spain are full of the interception at the beginning of the week of a small boat off the coast of Fuerteventura, the Spanish island lying closest to the African coast. It was full of Nigerians, including two children and two pregnant women. The coast guard also discovered in the sea close by the dead body of an African.

For now the numbers remain manageable, but "for how long?" asks Senora Natividad Cano, Feurteventura's director for social affairs."Fuerteventura has been converted into the port of entry for Europe."

In every country in Europe, as the economy swings into a healthy upturn, the immigration debate is becoming re-engaged. Jobs, especially in the bottom rungs of the ladder, are becoming scarce. Should Europe open up again, or be prepared to slow down the economy?

Even to those like myself who are both pro the free market and pro the intermingling of people there is a sense, albiet expressed reluctantly, that enough is now enough. We are still digesting the influx of the 60s and 70s, some countries better than others. This earlier massive migration, whatever good it did to a few sectors of the economy, to many of the first generation immigrants themselves and to our ignorance of the music, the cuisine and the culture of far away peoples, created a series of hard-to-deal-with problems for which society is still paying the bills.

It also enabled society to put on hold older problems it should have been forced to confront earlier. In particular, it postponed the reorganization of economic life in the most humdrum parts of the economy, putting off the day when menial jobs should have been re-shaped to have more appeal to unemployed locals. It also postponed the day when a lot of businesses, in particular those in textile manufacturing and agriculture, should have packed up and re-located in the lands from which the immigrants came.

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