Irritation over immigration is sweeping across Europe

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 Christmas dinner.

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 criminals.
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 low birthrates.
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 the Netherlands.
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.