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Across Europe, politicians play immigration card to woo voters

Friday, March 11, 2005

Across Europe, politicians play immigration card to woo voters

LONDON (AP) - Immigrants to Britain may soon have to do more than just fill out forms. They might 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 doing too little to control the flow of immigrants or assimilate those who manage to get in.

Britain is just one of a host of European countries where politicians have been focusing on immigration - and the fears it generates - to win over voters.

Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour Party in Britain is campaigning on the slogan "Your country's borders protected,'' while the opposition says immigrants should be tested for HIV.

In the Netherlands thousands of asylum seekers await deportation, in France the government is considering a special immigration police force, and the ruling German coalition is struggling to contain the uproar over allegations of lax visa procedures.

Polls suggest the politicians are reflecting a popular anti-immigrant mood, but they are in a bind: most studies say Europe desperately needs immigrants to replenish aging populations and low birthrates.

That can be a hard sell when several EU countries have chronic unemployment rates above 10 percent and are running overburdened welfare systems widely perceived as besieged by deadbeat immigrants.

That perception is false, said Anne Kershen, director of the Centre for the Study of Migration at Queen Mary college, University of London.

"So many people who are uninformed say, 'Britain has too many immigrants,''' she said.

"If you took all the illegal immigrants out of London, the economy would probably collapse.''

Overall, about 8 percent of the population of Western Europe is foreign-born. In Germany, the figure is about 9 percent, in Britain around 8 percent - but in polls most respondents guess a much higher figure.

In a British poll conducted in 2000, the average estimate of the country's immigrant population was 20 percent.

Such perceptions have made immigration a major issue in early campaigning for British elections expected in May.

The opposition Conservative Party is calling for HIV and tuberculosis tests for immigrants and proposing a cap on the number of people admitted to the country each year.

On the center left, Blair's party advocates selecting immigrants with skills and making newcomers learn English and take the "Britishness test.''

The test, already in the works for prospective citizens, will be based on "Life in the United Kingdom: A Journey to Citizenship,'' a government handbook for newcomers that covers everything from the date of the Norman invasion (1066) to how to set up a bank account and pay a phone bill.

In a speech to supporters at a Labour conference in February, Blair talked tough on immigration, arguing that "too many people play the system, not play by it.''

Susie Symes, one of the trustees of a museum dedicated to London's immigrant history, said the perception of immigrants as a social burden is nothing new.

"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.

"Three hundred years ago you could find enormous tensions about the influx of French Huguenot refugees - MPs standing up in the House of Commons saying, 'We should kick the immigrants out of the country,''' she said, referring to the Protestants who fled persecution in France in the 17th century.

Large-scale immigration to Europe got underway after World War II, as Turks came to Germany to help rebuild the war-shattered country and thousands of workers from Britain's colonies - many veterans of the fight against Nazi Germany - looked for a better life in the "Mother Country.''

Others came to France and The Netherlands from former colonies such as Algeria and Indonesia.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 - and the train bombings that killed 191 people in Madrid on March 11, 2004 - gave new impetus to long-standing European fears about "foreigners'' in their midst.

In a poll of 25,000 EU residents conducted last fall, 54 percent of respondents disagreed with the statement that Europe needs immigrants, while 43 percent of respondents agreed.

Yet, economists argue that Europe does need immigrants. Across the continent, the population is aging and birth rates falling.

One United Nations study estimated that Europe would need 1.6 million migrants a year for the next 45 years to maintain its work force at current levels.

In Britain, hotels, hospitals, pubs, construction sites and farms rely on immigrant workers to do crucial but often poorly paid jobs.

The same is true in many other European countries.

Thousands of migrants from countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia 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; over the Adriatic from Albania to Italy; in the back of trucks through the Channel Tunnel between France and England.

Within the European Union, migration from relatively poor member states is becoming a rising concern for richer ones, despite the bloc's reputation as a vast free market in labour and goods.

Last year, the 15-nation union admitted 10 new member states, mostly poor former communist countries of central and eastern Europe.

Amid tabloid scare stories about millions more migrants from the east, most countries slapped restrictions on workers from the new member nations.

Moves to coordinate immigration policy within the 25-nation EU are moving slowly.

EU ministers are considering a U.S.-style "green card'' system to draw skilled immigrants, and agreed last year to set up a common asylum and immigration policy - by 2010.

But 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.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of France's National Front, shocked the nation by qualifying for a one-on-one runoff against President Jacques Chirac in presidential elections in 2002.

He also has been convicted six times of racism or anti-Semitism - most recently in February for a newspaper interview in which he said a growing Muslim population meant that soon "the French will lower their heads and walk the sidewalk with their eyes down.''

Moderate parties, while eschewing overtly xenophobic language, have echoed some of the far right's concerns - arguing that to forestall an anti-foreigner surge, they must come up with tough policies to choke off illegal migration and stop migrants "asylum shopping'' for the most generous host country.

"We will never maintain the tolerant, diverse nation of which we can be so proud, unless we have the strict controls that keep it so,'' Blair said last month.

In France, the center-right government has proposed creating an immigration police force to stop illegal immigrants entering the country.

A new immigration law took effect in Germany last month designed to encourage more highly qualified immigrants. Newcomers are obliged to take government-funded German-language and civics courses, or risk losing state benefits.

In the Netherlands, where one in five people is a first- or second-generation immigrant, a surge of anti-immigrant sentiment spiked with the November murder, allegedly by a Muslim radical, of filmmaker Theo van Gogh.

The right-wing Dutch government has introduced policies to deter immigrants, including steep visa fees, restrictions on foreign marriages and compulsory integration classes.

The government has vowed to deport 26,000 rejected asylum seekers by the summer of 2007. Denmark, too, tightened its immigration laws in 2002, making it harder for foreigners to get residence permits and raising the minimum age for immigrants hoping to bring their spouse into the country from 18 to 24.

"Other countries have followed and will follow our example,'' newly re-elected Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen said last week.

Shamit Saggar, a professor of political science at the University of Sussex who has studied attitudes to immigration across Europe, said the anti-immigrant mood would continue to dominate politics in many European countries.

But in Britain, he feels, the picture is more complex.

"Immigration has been broadly something that has been welcomed in this country,'' Saggar said.

"While polls show many people are hostile to future immigration, they are generally positive about past immigration. There's a long tradition of being pragmatic about these things in Britain.'' - AP

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