A dynamic Europe needs immigrants

By Quentin Peel

Financial Times

Published: March 3 2005

The good news is that the number of refugees seeking asylum across the industrialised world fell sharply - for the third year in a row - in 2004.

According to the latest annual figures released by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees this week, the overall figure remains distressingly high, at 368,000, but that is still the lowest level since 1988. Numbers were down 22 per cent last year alone.

The drop is good news above all for those who might have been refugees: it is a direct consequence of a decline in conflict around the world. The number of Afghans seeking asylum has dropped by 83 per cent in the past three years, from a peak of more than 50,000 in 2001. The number of Iraqi refugees has also fallen by 80 per cent since 2002, although the number started to rise again half way through 2004, because of the continuing insurgency.

Those figures should also be good news as far as the ill-informed and over-emotional debate on immigration is concerned, especially in Europe. They demonstrate two things: that there is no great "asylum crisis" in the industrialised world; and, anyway, peaks and troughs of refugees are a result primarily of conflict, not of illegal immigration. What the figures do reveal is where political problems remain most acute: the largest number of refugees came from Russia (most of them Chechens), followed by Serbia and Montenegro (many from Kosovo). In third place was China, followed by Turkey (in spite of its recent reforms).

The steady decline in asylum seekers should give us an opportunity to bring a little reason back to the debate on population movement. Yet the bad news is that political parties throughout Europe continue to lump together asylum seekers and economic migrants in one great immigration horror story, cynically exploiting a fear of foreigners as a way of winning votes.

In Germany, Joschka Fischer, the foreign minister, is under fierce attack for his part in sanctioning a liberal visa regime to operate in Ukraine and Russia, allegedly allowing a flood of illegal workers to enter the country. His Green party has already been criticised for liberalising Germany's notoriously restrictive nationality laws.

In Britain, all three leading political parties are proposing quota systems to restrict immigration as part of their election platforms. The Conservative party deliberately adds asylum seekers to other migrants in a planned annual ceiling on immigration - a move that would require withdrawal from the Geneva Convention on Refugees.

In Italy, the government quite openly espouses tighter immigration controls as part of a package of reforms to liberalise the labour market. In Denmark, the government of Anders Fogh Rasmussen has just been re-elected on a platform of strict immigration controls, with the support of the stridently anti-immigrant Danish People's party. Only Spain is going in the opposite direction, offering an amnesty for up to 1m illegal workers.

Yet in three weeks' time, leaders of all 25 European Union governments will be sitting around a table in Brussels restating their commitment to making the EU the world's most dynamic and competitive economy, according to their so-called Lisbon strategy. It is very hard to see how they can hope to achieve that goal without an active and liberal immigration policy.

Europe needs immigrants both economically and demographically. A more liberal immigration policy is one of the most obvious reasons why the US economy continues to grow faster than the European. It would also help the EU to some extent to counter the problems posed by the ageing of its workforce, although it is only a small part of the answer. Yet, around the table in Brussels, most of the heads of government espouse tighter immigration controls. It is hard to know if it is mere hypocrisy, or a full-blown case of split personality.

An obvious problem is that so much of the debate is driven by popular misinformation. Thus Mr Fischer is accused of allowing a surge in people-trafficking and prostitution across Germany's borders, yet the German police do not report any big increase in workers in the black economy or prostitutes from Ukraine. There was a sharp increase in tourist visas, but it lasted two years. The overall impact was minimal.

In Britain, the popular press is full of stories about east European migrants as social security scroungers: but of the 91,000 who arrived from the new EU member states in the first six months after May 1 2004, barely a dozen have claimed any benefit. The migrants are mostly young people who come to work, save their money and frequently return home to reap the reward. Most are temporary and hard-working, whether skilled or unskilled.

The UK government wants to introduce a points system to admit only skilled workers. Yet this creates another problem: draining developing countries of desperately needed skills. It is said there are more trained Malawian doctors in Birmingham than there are in Malawi. This is insane. Malawi needs them far more.

Migrants who are not refugees tend to be the more dynamic members of their society, whether skilled or unskilled. Surely it is better to take in energetic unskilled workers and train them. Whether they stay or go home, both countries will reap some benefit.

What is needed is a complete change in the tone of the political debate on immigration in Europe. We need politicians who are brave enough to say immigration is good for us. It cannot be entirely unrestricted. But without immigration Europe will never become the most dynamic economy in the world, however many fine words our leaders may preach.