They are cursed in cities and towns across Europe. On talk shows, in newspapers and in bars and cafes, they are dismissed as parasites, threatening social norms and culture. And when unemployment rises and governments impose cuts on public spending, the eyes turn again to the immigrants.
In France, once seen as a bastion of European egalitarianism, the issue of immigration and racial identity has shot to the top of the political agenda. Roma people, also known as gypsies, have been expelled under government orders, while the wearing of burqas and other Islamic face coverings in public is set to be banned.
President Nicolas Sarkozy has been accused of engaging in Nazi-style ethnic cleansing over the expulsions while the European Commission has threatened to take legal action over the treatment of the Roma.
France isn’t alone though. Across the continent, politicians and media commentators are adopting a harsh line.
Last month, German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that multiculturism had “absolutely failed” and a book by a former central banker that says Muslim immigrants are “dumbing down” the country has become a best-seller.
In Italy the anti-immigration Northern League is in government and the fastest-growing party. Sweden, known for tolerance, last month elected its first far-right lawmaker on an anti-immigration platform.
They argue that border controls must become stricter; that further large-scale immigration will damage overcrowded western societies and that any economic benefits of immigration are vastly overstated.
The reason for Europe’s growing persecution of immigrants, according to Khalid Koser, from the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, is that in the current economic climate, foreigners are a useful scapegoat.
“At times of political crisis or elections, governments use migration as a lever,” Koser said. “That’s what President Sarkozy is doing with the Roma expulsions in France as far as I can see.
“There’s a tendency to generalize migration that it’s somehow a problem, that it’s full of criminals, but that’s just not the case. Many migrants are ex-pats returning from the U.S. for instance. Many others are Poles coming to work quite legally, as they have the right.
“The interesting thing for governments is how they’ve lost control of this narrative. Even though they can prove empirically that most migrants are economic, are working and paying taxes, still certain parts of the media and a large part of the voting public don’t get the message. I think it’s a real concern.”
In Britain one anti-immigration group is Migration Watch, whose founder Andrew Green said he believed he was winning the argument. “The result of ineffective controls is very large-scale immigration with consequent impact on population and public services,” he told CNN.
“That may be why, in calling for a reduction in immigration, we have the support [according to a YouGov 2009 poll] of 77 percent of the population of whom 50 percent want it reduced ‘by a lot.'”
But analysts say this claim is hardly surprising given the general anti-immigration message put out by the media and a lack of trusted information from governments.
Media commentator Roy Greenslade, a former UK tabloid editor, said little of the coverage of immigration in newspapers was objective.
“There appears to be a debate conducted in private among individuals and in public in newspapers,” he said. “The private conversations are fed by gossip, rumor and innuendo, and by what appears in newspapers. The papers then repeat the gossip, rumor and innuendo until you get a self-perpetuating cycle in which one feeds the other. It means there is a lack of objective information.”
This situation could only be rescued, Greenslade added, “if someone at the highest levels of government says this is such an important matter that it is time to produce the facts.”
“They need to encourage editors to believe the facts they are giving them are not speculation. They’ve shied away from doing this but I don’t think they know. I don’t think they have any records going back that show the numbers of people coming to this country or numbers of people there illegally. This bedevils the debate.”
The problem, according to Greenslade, is that lawmakers are scared of raising the subject even though it is a subject the people they represent are concerned about.
“The truth is that newspapers tend to be populated and edited by indigenous white people, and also tend to be populist and reactionary. They are not trying to educate people because they are playing to the gallery,” he said.
The media’s largely unsympathetic portrayal of immigrants is something that Nick Young, chief executive of the British Red Cross, is all too familiar with.
He said his charity had launched a campaign this summer highlighting how failed asylum seekers were being made destitute because they could not work or receive benefits.
However, the subject had received little coverage in the media, he said, because it was viewed as a “toxic topic” warranting little attention.
“The needs of this vulnerable group of people, most of whom came with a legitimate claim for help and support, are washed away amid concern that far too many people are coming to the UK who just want to live a nice life and to enjoy the benefits we enjoy,” Young said.
“But the majority of asylum seekers are not benefit cheats. Many are highly skilled, they want to work and make a contribution.
“There are no votes in providing help and care for refused asylum seekers. This is not a popular group of people in the UK. There is no sympathetic audience for their plight.”
And, as Greenslade believes, the media plays up to their audiences’ prejudices by describing asylum seekers as “benefit cheats” or “spongers,” lawmakers are wary of expressing opinions on immigration for fear of being accused of racism.
One lawmaker, Roger Godsiff, said he had been branded a racist for expressing what he thought was an uncontroversial opinion that there had to be some limit on immigration, otherwise you risked “concreting over the whole country.”
“You ought to be able to say how many people do you want in the country — no matter where they come from, what ethnic group or religion they are — without being accused of being a racist,” said Godsiff, who represents part of Birmingham, the UK’s second-largest city.
The result, say some analysts, is that the argument about whether or not a certain number of people should enter a country, or the economic benefits they may bring, is rarely conducted rationally, causing widespread confusion about the issue.
The danger of this lack of understanding, according to Khalid Koser, is a rise in racism and a failure to tap valuable labor markets.
“My real concern about the lack of an objective debate is that many members of the public confuse migrants with settled ethnic minorities. It may well be some Algerian asylum seekers are causing trouble but it’s hard to distinguish them from a Moroccan who’s lived here for 40 years.
“Expecting the public to make sophisticated distinctions is quite difficult so migration becomes a magnet, an excuse for xenophobia and racism. That’s the problem of a lack of communication.”
And with Europe facing greater pressures from both inside and outside its borders to take more immigrants, the tensions show no sign of easing.
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