Immigration in the European Union: problem or solution?

The number of asylum seekers is rising sharply across the European Union. Given the EU’s ageing population, is a return to selective immigration inevitable?

Europe’s history has been shaped by migration. For centuries, merchants, craftsmen and intellectuals crossed the continent to practice their trades or start new lives. Millions emigrated from Europe, first to the colonies and later to the Americas and the Antipodes. Europe also has a long history of forced migration: from the expulsion of the Jews from Spain to the population shifts in southeast Europe caused by the many wars between the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires.

Large-scale immigration into western Europe is more recent. From 1960 to 1973, the number of foreign workers in western Europe doubled from 3 to 6% of the workforce. It was highest in places like the UK and France, with relatively open access for citizens of their former colonies; in Germany, too, the number of foreigners (nearly half Turks) rose 4m in the 25 years after 1960, although they seldom became citizens. But primary immigration into Europe – driven by labour needs – all but ended with the oil crisis of 1973. The foreign-born population has continued to grow, not least because most countries still issue tens of thousands of residence permits each year for the purposes of family reunification (nearly 80% of the 58,700 people accepted for permanent settlement in the UK in 1997 were wives and children). EU countries also issue thousands of work permits each year. In Britain in 1997, nearly half of the 54,000 permits went to Americans and Japanese mainly in highly skilled jobs; elsewhere in Europe the permits often go to seasonal farm workers. But the proportion of foreign-born residents in the EU remains low, ranging from 9% in Austria, Belgium and Germany, to under 2% in Spain.

Since the late 1980s, the number of people applying for asylum has increased sharply. In 1984 there were only 104,000 applications in western Europe. This figure grew to 692,000 in 1992 and then declined during much of the 1990s. Numbers grew again to 350,000 in 1998 and about 400,000 in 1999, although this year they have begun to fall away. Thus asylum has become one of the principal means of immigration into the EU.

Why this sudden surge? The end of the Cold War lifted the lid on a number of small wars and ethnic conflicts around the world. In this type of warfare, the combatants – regular troops complimented by paramilitaries – often target civilian populations. Many people applying for asylum are ostensibly fleeing such “ethnic cleansing”, most notably in Bosnia in the early 1990s and Kosovo in the late 1990s. Also, with the end of communist rule many eastern Europeans believe that their aspirations for a better life can only be served in the west. With freer movement and cheaper travel, it is not surprising that many have tried to emigrate westward. The problem is that tens of thousands have tried to use the asylum process to do so, leading to a backlash, in some countries, against all types of migrants.

The top six countries from which British asylum-seekers came last year were China, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Yugoslavia, Poland and Afghanistan. But most of the world’s refugees do not get to Europe. They remain in the region close to their countries, often in camps. Iran was housing some 1.9m refugees in 1998, mostly from Iraq and Afghanistan, and there are some 2m Afghan and Iraqi refugees in Pakistan.

But in some EU states, asylum has become a totemic issue. It overlaps with other emotional matters such as ethnicity and identity, revealing an illiberal streak in liberal democracies. But we should keep things in perspective. It may have been easier for migrants to enter the UK 100 years ago, but once there they were far more likely to face violence and had nothing like the legal and social protection of today’s welfare states. None the less, resentment of “the other” can be exploited by demagogues, especially when there is no obvious gap in the job market for refugees to fill. Overall, refugees are only a small burden on taxpayers – but this may not be how it seems in areas of high refugee density (in Britain this means a few London boroughs or towns like Dover), where migrants share services such as schools, hospitals and housing with the poorest locals.


Most people think about the asylum issue in domestic terms, but it is pan-European. Across the continent, the policy issues and the debate are remarkably similar. Even Ireland, whose modern history is one of mass emigration, saw asylum applications leap from 39 in 1992 to more than 4,600 in 1998. Some countries have experienced much larger increases than others. Germany has consistently received more refugees than other EU countries – more than 60% of all those who applied for asylum in western Europe in 1992. Austria, Holland, Sweden and Switzerland have, at times during the last decade, received high numbers of refugees per head of their populations, while some of the larger states, especially France, Italy and Spain, have received relatively fewer. Britain is in the middle of the field. It had 17,000 applications in 1989 and 71,000 a decade on – more than Germany. The largest annual tally was 73,000 in 1991, under a Conservative government.

There are, of course, nuances in the tone of the debate and the policy framework in different states. But the stress everywhere has been on reducing the flow, while trying to distinguish genuine asylum-seekers from purely “economic” migrants. The Bonn government responded to the Balkan influx in the early 1990s – and to some attacks on refugees – by tightening its previously liberal asylum law. This introduced a “safe third country” rule: if a person has passed through a country which Germany deems safe, he or she cannot apply for asylum in Germany. Since Germany considers all neighbouring countries as safe, asylum-seekers who do not arrive by plane are likely to be rejected.

After these restrictions were introduced in 1993, the number of applications fell sharply, prompting other EU states to follow. In Holland, the numbers of asylum-seekers rose considerably after 1996. The Dutch authorities (like the British, see below) are experiencing difficulties in dealing quickly with applications. As in Britain, Dutch politicians talk of the “flood” of “bogus” refugees, although Dutch newspapers use more temperate language than the British tabloids.

The Dutch government has devised a new Aliens Act, due to come into effect next year. The law, which has been hotly debated, is designed to streamline the asylum procedure and reduce the average time for processing applications from 22 months to six. It will also give all asylum-seekers (who are eligible to stay) a more temporary status. Instead of giving full refugee status after the initial procedure, each case will be reviewed after three years, and only then approved or rejected.

In some countries, asylum is only one element in a wider debate about immigration and national identity. Jörg Haider’s far-right Freedom party exploited Austrians’ unease about immigrants and refugees to manoeuvre itself into the federal government.

In Italy, the biggest issues are what to do with the large number of illegal immigrants or clandestini already in the country, how to tackle the large-scale trafficking of migrants, particularly by speed-boat from Albania, and concern at the involvement of the mafia in the smuggling gangs. Silvio Berlusconi, leader of the right-wing Forza Italia, and Umberto Bossi, leader of the Lega Nord, successfully fought April’s regional elections on a stringent anti-immigration, anti-asylum platform.

But, for a number of reasons, Italy has tended to receive small numbers of asylum applications. Many refugees, particularly from Somalia and the former Yugoslavia, are given work permits on humanitarian grounds, which relieves them of the need to apply for asylum. Periodic amnesties for illegal immigrants means that they can regularise their situation rather than apply for refugee status. And many migrants use Italy as a port of entry, travelling on to Germany, Switzerland or Britain, where they enter clandestinely (often in lorries) or apply for asylum.

In France and Spain, which receive few asylum-seekers relative to the Netherlands, Britain and Germany, asylum has not been such a big issue. In France, the Front National, wracked by infighting, has lost its way. Government attempts to deport illegal immigrants – provoking hunger strikes and demonstrations – have subsided. Integrating existing immigrants and regularising the situation of the sans papiers, many of whom may have been resident in France for years, now dominates the debate on immigration.

It is obviously beyond the immediate power of the EU to eradicate the root causes of all migration. But over time, if the EU wants to reduce migratory pressure, it will have to provide more development aid, debt relief, and fair trade, and it will need to be better equipped to prevent conflict and keep the peace in trouble spots around the world. These objectives lie at the heart of the EU’s common foreign and security policy. (The EU’s resolute position in the Kosovo crisis no doubt owed much to a fear of a mass exodus of Kosovan refugees.)


But should European states even try to stop economic migration? Europe’s population is set to decline over the next 50 years. Italy will lose 28% of its population by 2050. In order to maintain its working age population, Italy would need to start importing more than 350,000 immigrants per year or, alternatively, keep its citizens working until they are 75.

The US (population 275m) has tended to take only small numbers of asylum-seekers – fewer than Europe, relative to its population. But it has a more liberal immigration regime. By the late 1990s, the US was taking in about 1m immigrants a year: 730,000 legal immigrants, 200,000 illegal aliens and about 100,000 refugees. About 70% of legal immigrants are admitted for the purposes of family reunification.

The in-flows of migrants during the 1980s and 1990s – the second great migration of the 20th century – has literally changed the face of America. In 1970 the US population was 5% Hispanic, 1% Asian and 12% black. A recent projection indicates that by 2050, it will be 26% Hispanic, 8% Asian and 14% black.

Immigration in the US is embraced more enthusiastically by the free market right than the trade union left, but it has brought real benefits. Immigrants contribute to innovation – witness the number of foreigners in Silicon Valley. And they do jobs that native workers refuse, such as sustaining Californian agriculture. But in his new book, Heaven’s Door, Harvard economist George Borjas claims that the economic benefits brought by the latest 20-year wave of immigrants are more disputable. He points to the fall-off in skills relative to those who emigrated to the US in the 1950s and 1960s. He argues that America should admit only 500,000 immigrants per year, and select the most highly skilled. These are criteria which, he acknowledges, would have prevented him, a refugee from Cuba, from immigrating in the early 1960s.

Congress recently approved an extra 200,000 visas for skilled workers. European governments are taking similar steps. Germany wants 20,000 information technology workers from outside Europe, particularly software engineers from India (prompting the Christian Democrats to campaign on the slogan Kinder statt Inder, “children not Indians”). Britain, too, wants to recruit east European computer experts but is only too keen to turn away their less skilled compatriots.

No one knows what will happen to asylum trends – indeed, no one knows what is really happening now; one reputable estimate puts the number of illegal migrants smuggled into the EU each year as 400,000. The probability is that more small wars and the increasing urbanisation of the world’s population will keep the asylum numbers high. But immediate attention in Europe is likely to shift back to more conventional labour-shortage recruitment. There will be no return to the open door policy of the 1960s (let alone the 19th century), but the EU economy will require an increase in selective primary immigration.

©Prospect Magazine, June 2000 / OECD Observer No 221-222, Summer 2000

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