Refugees fleeing the upheaval in North Africa are running into a different sort of political conflict in Europe.
Since mid-January, more than 10,000 refugees from countries such as Tunisia and Libya have arrived at the Italian island of Lampedusa.
Marine Le Pen, who heads France’s far-right National Front Party and is a leading contender in next year’s presidential election in France, appeared on the island on Monday to let them know they aren’t welcome.
Le Pen and other far-right politicians have gained traction recently — in large part by raising concerns about immigration. This has put Europe’s leaders into a difficult position.
The leaders have expressed support for the democratic aspirations that have led to unrest throughout the Muslim world — and they don’t want to be insensitive to the plight of refugees fleeing repression and violence. On the other hand, they recognize that a flood of refugees would add to prevailing unease about the difficulties of integrating immigrants, especially Muslims.
“While on the one hand, they support the transformation that is now going on in Africa, this short-term anti-immigrant wave that is washing over Europe is so strong,” says Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “This is about getting to the next election.”
‘Europe Is Being Invaded’
In recent years, far-right parties in France, the Netherlands and Sweden have gained traction by complaining that Muslim immigrants are an economic drain and that they don’t fit in culturally with the West.
According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the number of Muslims in Europe jumped from 29.6 million in 1990 to 44.1 million in 2010 — and are projected to reach 58 million by 2030. More than half of North Africa’s migrants are in Europe, according to the World Bank. In three European countries — Belgium, Portugal and France — more than half the nation’s immigrants from developing countries hail from Africa, according to the OECD.
“Europe is being invaded,” Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni complained last week, referring to the current exodus from North Africa.
Last year, a book by Thilo Sarrazin arguing that immigrants are destroying Germany was an enormous best-seller, triggering a national debate.
Both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and, more recently, British Prime Minister David Cameron have said that multiculturalism and immigrant integration have failed in their countries.
Meanwhile, Le Pen says that European navies “should go as close as possible to the coasts from where the clandestine boats departed to send them back.”
And something like that may be starting to happen. On Tuesday, Italy refused a ferry carrying 1,800 passengers — most of them Moroccans who had fled Libya — entry into its waters.
Skeptics About Assimilation
Countries such as Germany actually spend far more than the U.S. government on programs to help immigrants integrate into society, notes Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a coalition of business groups that rely on immigrant labor.
But, Jacoby says, Europeans have a harder time than Americans in believing that immigrants or even their children can assimilate and become true members of their society.
“They don’t have the history we have of dealing with it, and hyphenated identities,” she says.
Nations such as the Netherlands and Germany ask questions on their citizenship tests to determine whether immigrants accept homosexuality and gender equality.
And many Europeans also are concerned, given pinched finances on the Continent, about whether they can afford to let in more immigrants. Once immigrants arrive, they are often entitled to extensive social benefits.
“Europeans, especially Germans, do feel that they need to be sensitive to refugees,” says Jacoby, who recently published a Foreign Affairs article about immigration in Germany. “But [the flow coming up from North Africa] could become too many refugees for many people.”
How The Continent May Respond
European Union rules call for refugees to apply for asylum in whichever country they happen to land. That’s put a big strain on countries to the south and east.
The EU policy is to grant asylum to refugees who would not be safe in their country of citizenship or residence for fear of persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, political stances or other reasons.
Not everyone who seeks asylum gets it. There are judicial hearings, just as in the U.S.
The EU has been talking for a while about developing a common immigration policy. Some countries are more restrictive than others. Over the past decade, Germany and other countries have started initiatives designed to attract high-skilled workers, notably in information technology.
In 2007, the EU created the “Blue Card,” which is designed to attract top talent in part by making it easier for them to move from job to job and country to country. Member states are supposed to have implementing legislation in place by June. But the efforts to attract top talent have thus far met with minimal success.
And on the other hand, even before the current influx, Greece was working on a fence to block migrants from coming over from Turkey. Spain and Italy had agreements with African nations to limit immigrant traffic across the Mediterranean.
EU nations are channeling aid through organizations, such as the International Organization for Migration, with resources on the ground at places like the Tunisia-Libya border.
“The Europeans announced an increase in the aid package to Tunisia to buy the problem away from their shores,” says Conley of CSIS.
Economic Or Political Refugees?
Because the arc stretching across North Africa to Yemen remains far from stable, the relatively small number of refugees seeking safe harbor in Europe is bound to grow.
Many of those who have arrived at Lampedusa thus far hail from third countries. Some are workers from places like Bangladesh who had been abandoned by their employers and are seeking any way out.
The shape of the refugee debate in Europe may turn largely on the question of whether those coming from North Africa are truly political refugees with reason to fear for their lives, or economic migrants seeking better opportunities.
Tunisians have no reason to apply for asylum, says Patrick Weil, a senior research fellow at the Sorbonne.
“People belonging to the former regime are still in power,” he says. “I don’t see anyone risking their lives for ideas.”
Libyan Refugees: Testing The West
But things may be different when it comes to those fleeing Libya, Weil says. If Moammar Gadhafi remains in power, many Libyan refugees will be at risk of execution if they are sent back, and so they will be granted asylum, he predicts.
“As long as it’s a humanitarian situation, European populations will be accepting,” says Elizabeth Collett, European policy fellow with the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank. “If they think it’s economic immigrants taking advantage of the situation, that would be different.”
Political refugees coming from North Africa will present a different profile from that of traditional Muslim immigrants to Europe, says Irene Bloemraad, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley.
According to a World Bank report, 46.9 percent of immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East in Europe are considered to have “low skills.”
These new political refugees are more likely to be professional or members of the middle class, Bloemraad says. They also have risked their lives for a widely hailed cause, which will put to the test “the knee-jerk anti-Muslim reactions that you’ve seen over the last 10 years,” she adds.
“The people in Libya are embracing what the West sees as their values — democracy and lack of repression,” she says. “Making the Muslim ‘alien’ is going to be much more difficult.”
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