Can Immigration be Trumped?

Donald Trump is not the first person to bring up the subject of immigration.  That subject has been and increasingly remains an issue of contentious debate and a major political problem not only in the United States but also in Europe.  The British IPSOS-MORI public opinion poll of August 2015, for example, indicates that 50 percent of British citizens think that immigration is one of the most important issues facing the country, and 32 percent think it is the most important single issue.

The world is facing the largest refugee crisis since the end of World War II.  Mr. Trump has rhetorically provided a simple answer for the United States: deport millions, perhaps 11 million people, and restrict immigration; build a great wall on our Southern border, and make Mexico pay for it.  More realistically, European political leaders, like most current U.S. presidential candidates, are aware there is no simple or single answer to the challenges posed by migration.  Responsible U.S. presidential candidates should take heed of the economic problems, the political consequences, and the danger to democratic systems now evident in the crisis caused by the immigration wave in Europe.

The United States and Europe both face a triple-motivation driving people to seek immigration: refugees, those who fear persecution because of race, religion, of political beliefs; asylum seekers; and those seeking a better life for economic reasons.  Clearly, a serious humanitarian and moral problem exists, yet it is not racist to suggest that reasonable limits be put on the surging, ever increasing numbers seeking asylum.

The migrants come for different reasons.  Though many are suffering from poverty, which in itself is not an approved reason to be allowed to enter another country, the majority are fleeing countries, primarily Syria, Eritrea, and Afghanistan, because of war, political oppression, and religious extremism.  Legally, they can claim refuge in Europe.     

Thus, an initial problem is how to distinguish illegal economic migrants from those who are really fleeing from persecution and therefore covered by asylum law because they would face harm or even death if sent back to countries of origin.

The numbers involved are increasing.  In 2014 there were 626,000 applicants for asylum in the EU, an increase from 435,000 in 2013.  The largest number, 123,000, came from Syria, followed by Afghans, migrants from Kosovo, and Eritreans.  In the month of July 2015 alone, 107,500 people, a record number, were at the borders of EU.  More than 240,000 migrants crossed the Mediterranean in 2015, arriving on the shores of Greece and Italy.  In six months of 2015, about 188,000 crossed from North Africa to Europe.

The EU has proposed a quota system based on country size, economic output, and other measures.  Germany would take the most migrants (18 percent) followed by France (14 percent) and Italy (11 percent).  But tensions exist within the EU on the quota proposal.  Some countries are opposed to the quota, and Britain, Denmark, and Ireland are exempt from it.

In 2014, of the total 626,000 seeking asylum in the EU, 202,000 applied to Germany, 64,000 to France, 81,000 to Sweden, 64,000 to Italy, and 31,000 to Britain.  

Germany, the main European economic power, is facing as many as 800,000 seeking asylum, one percent of its total present population.  So far in 2015, about 40 percent of the 330,000 seeking asylum in the EU did so in Germany.  The debate has started within the EU on equitable distribution of those seeking asylum and equitable sharing of the costs involved.  But it will be difficult to reach any overall agreement, because the nations of the EU all want sovereign control over their territories.

The political consequences of the surge are important.  In general, Europe wants to limit the number of immigrants, partly because it fears a drain on economic resources since asylum seekers have the right to food, shelter, and first aid, and partly because conflict over immigration interferes with the economic integration of the EU.  A sense of xenophobia has been heightened.  An added problem is the need for increased security because of the Schengen zone rule that makes it easier to cross borders within the EU.

European countries are searching methods and imposing stricter requirements to prevent migration from taking place at all.  Their actions have taken two forms: practical arrangements to prevent entrance and the rise of right-wing anti-immigration parties.

Events around Calais have received much media attention, when about 5,000 people in July and August 2015 tried to sneak into England via the 31-mile Eurotunnel from Calais or through ferries to south England.  This exploit disrupted trade and tourism.  In addition, a criminal element appeared, with organized gangs of smugglers who take the migrants in vehicles to a truck stop where willing drivers take them into England. 

France and Britain have been unable to cope with the problem, but both are currently planning an arrangement to strengthen cooperation on security, extra police units, the use of cameras, floodlighting, and infrared detection technology, to fight more effectively against criminal smugglers.

Hungary is building a double-fence – one of razor wire and the other a 13-foot, 175-km long high fence – along its border with Serbia.  It also increased the number of police at its border with Serbia to stem the flow.  Bulgaria is starting to take measures to build a barrier along its 160-km border.  Even Macedonia declared a state of emergency to deal with thousands of migrants trying to enter from Serbia.  Borders with Greece were shut to prevent 3,000 migrants crossing into the country.  Germany has run an ad campaign in Albania to discourage potential migrants.

The EU launched a naval operation in the Mediterranean against human traffickers of migrants by identifying, capturing, and disposing of vessels used to smuggle refugees to Europe.

The crisis of immigration has led to violence and political opposition.  Since January 1, 2015, 17 attacks on accommodations for asylum seekers have been recorded.  In Latvia on August 4, 2015, 250 nationalists demonstrated in front of the government headquarters to protest the EU plans for resettling refugees.

German authorities reported 173 criminal offenses committed in 2015 by right-wing organizations protesting against plans to house asylum seekers.  In northern Italy, residents attacked a migrant housing center in protest against "Africanization."  Marches in German towns took place in support of Pegida, an anti-immigration and anti-Islamic movement formed in 2014.  On August 21, 2015 Macedonian police used stun grenades, trying to disperse a large number of migrants from entering their country.

Not surprisingly, anti-immigration political parties have been increasing their support.  The most well-known is the French National Front (FN), which, according to a January 2015 survey, has popularity of 28 percent.  Its platform is to reduce legal immigration from 200,000 a year to 10,000.

In Switzerland, the parliamentary representation of anti-immigrant parties is 12.8 percent.  In Britain, UKIP got 12.5 percent of the vote in the 2015 election, but because of the electoral system, it won only one seat.

The rise of the anti-immigrant parties has been most striking in the Nordic countries.  In Denmark in the June 2015 election, the Danish People's Party got 21 percent and  37 seats.  In 2014 it gained the largest share of votes in the EU Parliament.  It is currently the most popular party in the country.

In Sweden, the Democrats party, right-wing and anti-immigrant, got 13 percent of the national vote and 49 seats in 2014 election.  In public opinion polls in August 2015, it receives 25.2 percent, making it the most popular party in Sweden.

In Norway, the anti-immigrant Progress party got 29 seats and 16 percent of the poll in the 2013 election.  It is in the coalition government, as is the Finns party (17 percent and 38 seats) in Finland.

Greece has Golden Dawn, generally regarded as a violent, provocative neo-Nazi party.  In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders now has his own group, PVV, the Party for Freedom, the third largest, with 11 percent in 2015 provincial elections.  Belgium has Vlaams belang  (Flemish Interest), which propounds strict limits on immigration.  Hungary has Jobbik with 20 percent, Italy has Lega Nord, and Austria has the Freedom party with 20 percent.

Legitimate different points of view exist on the consequences of immigration.  Is it a drain on the economic system and on economic growth?  Will it reduce the income of native, especially low-income, workers?  What will be the impact on public finances?  Will it affect adversely the culture of European countries?

One answer to all this would be large-scale intervention to improve social and economic conditions in the countries from which the refugees are fleeing.  Though desirable, it is not likely to happen in the near future.  Nor will war and brutalities in those countries end.

The issue for those American politicians seeking power is that the anti-immigrant European parties are all populist parties that may differ on some social issues but have in common an attitude of fear, distrust, and above all hatred of foreigners.  One can agree that legalizing illegal immigrants, or approving all claims for immigration, is neither politically nor economically desirable.  At the same time, the politicians should take care that their views and statements on immigration issues do not lead to a similar undesirable outcome as is happening in Europe.