Immigration is the hottest political issue in Europe in our time. It will determine the nature of the governments in Britain and France next time round and it has already influenced the outcome of elections to the European Parliament, at which anti-immigrant parties and personalities found a receptive public in an ugly mood.
“Fortress Europe” was how critics used to describe the cordon sanitaire thrown around Europe by strict immigration control designed to keep out Africans, Arabs and Asians and facilitate freedom of movement from within. But since the enlargement of the European Union, which brought in Eastern European countries such as Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, it is freedom of movement of people within the EU that is causing much of the resentment — particularly in Britain, which may even vote to leave the EU altogether if she is unable to get some sort of opt-out to control freedom of movement of persons from the EU.
Yet immigration has been with us from time immemorial, as the various diasporas testify. “Our city is open to the world” was how Pericles chose to praise the open society of Athens in classical times. St. Paul too was famously a Roman citizen and traveled freely around the Mediterranean, where he was protected and respected everywhere — except, it has to be said, in Paphos, Cyprus, where he was beaten up for preaching Christianity and said bitterly but memorably that men from Paphos are not naive, and if naive are not from Paphos.
In Ottoman times people of different nationalities lived in harmony and moved freely within the empire under the tolerant gaze of the late Ottomans according to a system whereby they were governed by their own laws and customs. İstanbul and Jerusalem were places where Muslims, Christians and Jews lived and thrived in such harmony that some people hark back to those days with a tinge of reluctant nostalgia. The system was also extended to foreigners from outside the empire who lived in the empire but retained their own laws and legal system.
But it was the end of World War II that created a new world that was conducive to the first wave of modern immigration. Europe had been devastated by the war and needed rebuilding. In Germany the need for workers led to the recruitment of guest workers that helped make the German economic miracle, many of whom comprise the community of 3 million people of Turkish origin in Germany today.
In the UK disengagement from empire brought a huge number of immigrants from virtually all corners of Britain’s former colonies. Britain has a love-hate relationship with immigration. Reading the debates and laws passed with every wave of immigration from 1900 onwards, immigrants have always been resented at first, reluctantly tolerated next and finally accepted and celebrated in Britain. This explains why Britain is still a magnet for immigrants and migrants and émigrés from everywhere in the world.
France too is a magnet, mostly from its overseas departments and francophone former colonies, with a very large number coming from North Africa.
Large number of people from Third World settle in Europe
The second wave was also connected to the experience of the war. The sheer scale of the abuse of human rights in Europe before and during World War II led to the 1950 European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) and the UN’s Convention relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951. Each of these conventions enabled a large number of people from the Third World to settle in Europe. Every time there is a humanitarian crisis in a troubled part of the world, as in present-day Syria, there is pressure to provide refuge.
Unfortunately Europe has not been generous in the case of Syrians fleeing their war-torn country. The immoral decision of some European countries to let people in boats in the Mediterranean perish at sea rather than go to the trouble and expense of rescuing them — which was condemned by the pope in the European Parliament as inhumane — was as surprising as it is worrying. The pope spent just four hours in Strasbourg — enough to tell European leaders off for being bureaucratic and callous old hags, and — as if to drive the point home — then flew out to Turkey for three days to spend quality time with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, İstanbul’s Grand Mufti Rahmi Yaran and Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I.
At around the time the pope condemned Europe for callous xenophobia, US President Barack Obama overrode Congress and the Senate and gave an amnesty to 5 million undocumented Hispanic immigrants by executive decision, which goes to show that it does help if leaders are themselves of immigrant background. President Obama is now the toast of Hispanic America, which is as it should be. After all, it was Hispanic America that voted him in for a second term as president.
The third wave of immigration is systemic in the sense that it is of the essence of achieving an ever-closer union that people are free to move within the European Union as if it were one country. If it were to become one country like the US, there would be no problem. In the meantime, there is room for a flexible approach whereby there can be relative freedom of movement of people that can be curtailed by countries that are attracting a much larger number of people than their economy warrants. This is the problem faced by Britain at the moment, in that people prefer to go there not always for economic reasons. There are many migrants who prefer Britain to elsewhere not because of better social security benefits and free housing and health care but because it is, so to speak, a “green and pleasant land.” People are simply happier living in Britain.
Be that as it may, there are two parties in Britain and France with a nasty anti-immigrant streak setting the agenda, with all the other mainstream parties playing catch-up. They are the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in Britain and the National Front in France. Typically for right-wing nationalist parties, they have little to offer apart from strong, charismatic leaders and a single issue.
It is very easy to be anti-immigrant and offer simple solutions to complex problems but there is a paradox about being anti-immigrant in a world that has become a global village in an anti-racist Zeitgeist that — in the end — will defeat the bigots of UKIP and the National Front.
Alper Ali Rıza QC of Goldsmith Chambers, London, is a barrister and freelance writer.
This article first appeared in Today’s Zaman, a leading Turkish daily. Click here to go to the original.