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Financial Times

COMMENT & ANALYSIS: A small wave of immigration. By Philip Stephens. May 24, 2002.

Everywhere across Europe we hear the sound of doors slamming. The continent, we are told, is under siege. Globalisation was supposed to make us all rich by tearing down national frontiers. But there is a snag. We can rejoice at the fact that goods and capital now wash across the world oblivious to geographical, ethnic and political boundaries. But people? That is different. Globalisation must have limits. We cannot allow migration to disrupt the social order of Europe's prosperous states.

The huddled masses pay no heed. The Somalis and Afghanis, Kurds and Sri Lankans, Pakistanis and Iraqis, Iranians and Turks - they are too desperate to listen. For those locked outside the rich man's club, every unmanned border crossing, every gap in a fence, every passing train, car or boat promises freedom and a future.

The result? Hysteria in much of Europe's media and blind panic among its governments. Politicians from right, left and centre answer in one voice. The dikes must be plugged, the flood halted. And, lest we think them blinkered or selfish, the politicians claim what passes these days for the moral high ground. If democratic governments do not act decisively, they tell us, rightwing populists will capitalise on public fears. Better Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac build the new European fortress than hand the keys to Jean-Marie Le Pen.

This mindset is now promising policies as absurd as they are coarsely unjust. A confidential memorandum prepared for Mr Blair and leaked to The Guardian newspaper offers a glimpse of the current madness. British warships, the author suggests, should be dispatched to the Mediterranean to intercept boats carrying illegal immigrants who might eventually show up in Britain. The Royal Air Force should be pressed into service to secure "bulk removals" of those denied a haven in Britain. Asylum-seekers from "safe" countries (Pakistan, of all places, makes this list) should be denied any right to appeal against deportation. Visa requirements should be introduced to prevent people fleeing Robert Mugabe's tyranny in Zimbabwe. And, this the most draconian, impoverished nations that refuse properly to co-operate with Britain in taking back their nationals should be denied development aid.

Put aside for a moment the sheer impracticality and dubious legality of some of these proposals. Focus instead on the immoral vacuity of the last suggestion. Poverty and the ravages of war in, say, Somalia drive many of that country's citizens towards Europe. But unless Somalia's government fully co-operates in taking most of them back, it will lose British aid.

Have I missed something? Wouldn't a Somalia deprived of outside help fall into still deeper chaos and despair? Wouldn't more of its people be driven to flee? Wouldn't these unfortunates have a better case to claim asylum when they turned up hidden in lorries or clinging to trains at Britain's ports?

No matter. Mr Blair, for reasons that have everything to do with cheap politics and nothing to do with rational policy, wants his European Union partners to follow suit. This week he told José Mara Aznar, his Spanish counterpart, that illegal immigration should head the agenda at next month's summit of EU leaders in Seville. And yes, the EU should use its aid budget as a weapon to ensure compliance. "You flex your economic muscle to tap into a particular country that is causing you problems," explained one of Mr Blair's officials. "We already do it for terrorism; why not for immigration?" So there we have it. We are now fighting two wars, one against terrorism, the other against those wretched economic migrants and asylum-seekers.

Gunboats are not enough. Mr Blair and his continental colleagues want to build a new European Wall. Once the applicant countries from the former Soviet Union have joined, the Union's new eastern frontier must be sealed against those beyond. East Germany's Stasi used to keep people in. A new corps of EU border guards will be tasked with locking people out.

None of this will work. Prohibition has already put migration into the hands of criminal gangs. The traffic in human misery now vies with the drugs trade as a source of billions for those who make their fortunes from the dark side of globalisation. Europe's borders will always be porous. Knowledge of the drugs networks should have taught governments long ago that as long as there is demand there will be supply.

The cynicism of the politicians, though, is unbounded. It does not matter whether the policies work. Perceptions are what count. Domestic electorates must be persuaded that their governments are being tough with "scroungers" and "bogus asylum-seekers".

Perceptions in this debate are almost everything. To listen to Mr Blair and the rest, one would think western Europe had been overrun. In fact, the recorded number of asylum-seekers entering the EU has halved during the past decade. Those claiming refuge each year represent only 0.1 per cent of the EU's population. And they do low-paid, dirty jobs that the indigenous population will not touch. Only last month Gordon Brown, the chancellor, said an increase in the country's economic growth rate was in part due to immigration.

None of this is to deny that large and sudden influxes of immigrants can cause social dislocation and cause ethnic tension in the recipient countries. The process has to be managed and, of course, there will be problems during the transition. But each time the politicians talk up their counter-measures they pander to the xenophobes.

Missing is the political courage to tell the truth. As long as there is chaos and poverty on Europe's periphery, the citizens of those countries will seek to escape it. What better case for more, not less, aid, more help to build political and social institutions in failed or failing states? And, yes, Europe's wealthy but ageing population needs young, eager immigrants to generate the economic growth of the future.

Mr Blair's government, I was reminded yesterday, does occasionally show signs of intelligence. A white paper published this year by David Blunkett, the home secretary, recognised the need to open up legitimate immigration routes. But such flashes of reason are then spoilt by the knee-jerk responses we have seen again this week. Anyone can slam doors. It requires leadership to open them.