Irritation over immigration is sweeping across Europe
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
LONDON - Immigrants to Britain may soon have to do more
than just fill out forms. They may have to know where Cockneys live, how
many British households have pets, and what goes into a traditional
Such topics could form part of "a Britishness test" the
government is proposing as it heads into a general election facing rising
voter anxiety over the notion that the country is being swamped by
immigrants who are keen to embrace British jobs and British welfare, but not
the British way of life.
Britain is just one of a host of European countries where
politicians are responding to immigration angst. Prime Minister Tony Blair
is campaigning on the slogan "Your country's borders protected," while the
opposition wants immigrants tested for HIV. Stricter Dutch laws threaten
thousands of asylum-seekers with deportation. France is considering a
special immigration police force, and Germany's ruling coalition is facing
uproar over allegations of lax visa procedures that opened the door to
The public mood
Polls suggest the politicians are reflecting the
public mood, but European Union countries are in a bind: Most studies say
they desperately need immigrants to replenish aging populations and offset
That can be a hard sell when unemployment in some countries
is above 10 percent and overburdened welfare systems are widely perceived as
besieged by deadbeat immigrants. A U.N. study estimates Europe will need 1.6
million migrants a year for the next 45 years to maintain its work force,
yet in a poll of 25,000 EU residents last fall, 54 percent disagreed with
the statement that Europe needs immigrants.
The perception that Britain has too many immigrants is false,
said Anne Kershen, director of the Center for the Study of Migration at
Queen Mary College, University of London.
"If you took all the illegal immigrants out of London, the
economy would probably collapse," she said.
Major campaign issue
Overall, about 8 percent of Western Europe's
population is foreign-born. In Germany, the figure is about 9 percent, in
Britain around 8 percent - but in a British poll conducted in 2000, the
average guess was 20 percent. (The U.S. figure is 11.8 percent.)
Such perceptions have made immigration a major issue in early
campaigning for British elections expected in May, with Blair's Labor Party
advocating selecting immigrants with skills and making newcomers learn
English and take the "Britishness test" to qualify for permanent residency.
The test would be based on "Life in the United Kingdom: A
Journey to Citizenship," a government handbook that tells newcomers that,
among other things, Cockneys live in London, about half of all households
keep pets, and Christmas dinner is turkey and pudding.
Susie Symes, a trustee of a museum dedicated to London's
immigrant history, said the perception of immigrants as a social burden is
nothing new. Three hundred years ago, she said, it was French Protestants
fleeing persecution and British lawmakers saying, "We should kick the
immigrants out of the country."
"This is a country - politically, socially and economically -
shaped by immigration over 2,000 years," she said. "But that doesn't form
part of our national identity."
Paths of immigration
Large-scale immigration got under way after World
War II, as Turks came to Germany to help rebuild the war-shattered country
and thousands from the former European empires came looking for work -
Africans and West Indians to Britain, Algerians to France, Indonesians to
Today, thousands of migrants from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia
and elsewhere try to enter Europe each year - from Africa in overloaded
boats across the Strait of Gibraltar to Spain, from Turkey across the Aegean
to the Greek islands, in speedboats over the Adriatic from Albania to Italy,
in trucks through the Channel Tunnel between France and England.
In Britain, as in many other European countries, immigrant
workers are relied on to do crucial but often poorly paid jobs that hotels,
hospitals, pubs, construction sites and farms rely on.
But fear of immigrants has intensified since the Sept. 11
attacks and the Madrid train bombings of a year ago. Today, the "ugly
immigrant" in the public imagination is not just the welfare scrounger but
the hidden terrorist, which is why Blair's slogan of "Your country's borders
protected" cuts two ways.
Surge of hostile sentiment
In the Netherlands, where every fifth person is an
immigrant or the child of one, a surge of hostile sentiment spiked with the
November murder, allegedly by a Muslim radical, of filmmaker Theo van Gogh.
France, meanwhile, is among many countries that feel too many
immigrants are coming for the good life and not to assimilate into their
adopted countries - hence its much disputed effort to ban girls from wearing
Muslim head scarves to school.
Across the continent, extreme nationalist parties like the
Flemish Bloc in Belgium and the National Front in France have gained at the
polls by exploiting fears of a rising tide of immigrants and refugees.