Prague, 10 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Death arrived in the cold and dark for 19 Chinese immigrants caught by a surging tide on the sands of Morecambe Bay in northwest England.
Sent out to collect shellfish, the newly arrived Chinese had no knowledge of the fearsome speed of the tide across the sands. Neither, evidently, did the alleged organizers of the work gang, who are now under arrest in Britain. Those who lost their lives last week are thought to have been illegal immigrants, who were paid a pittance to work at such jobs.
It is tragedies like this that thrust the problem of illegal immigration into the headlines. Host communities are made insecure when confronted with such incidents, which suddenly lift the veil of secrecy surrounding the trade in humans. This nervousness translates into political attitudes -- and, eventually, political action.
"The vast majority of immigrants are industrious, courageous, and determined. They don't want a free ride."
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan described the situation in a speech to the European Parliament last month: "Sometimes the breadth of the [migration] agenda has been lost amidst shrill debate about clamping down on illegal immigration, as though that were the major purpose of migration policy. The public has been fed images of floods of unwelcome entrants and of threats to their societies and identities. In the process, immigrants have sometimes been stigmatized, vilified, even dehumanized. In the process, an essential truth has been lost. The vast majority of immigrants are industrious, courageous, and determined. They don't want a free ride."
But the political tide appears to be running at the moment against Annan's plea for a new deal for immigrants. In Britain, asylum is expected to be one of the key issues in the next general election, expected in 2005. Prime Minister Tony Blair has fulfilled his promise of slashing the number of asylum seekers in half from a peak of more than 100,000 people in 2002. But he is under pressure from the media and the political opposition to do more.
Accordingly, from the first of this month, British immigration officers are being stationed at French channel ports to check documents and turn back those without the proper entry papers into Britain.
The Dutch government is also acting to impose tighter controls on asylum seekers. A bill was brought into the Dutch parliament yesterday that lays down definitions of legal and illegal immigration, and sets out rules of departure for those declared illegal. In all, some 70,000 people now in the Netherlands could be affected by the legislation.
Political analyst Rinus van Schendelen of Rotterdam University takes issue with any assertion that his country is anti-immigrant, however. "There is not an attitude of anti-immigration, I would say almost on the contrary, given the high numbers of immigrants we still accept every year," he told RFE/RL. "But this country, as approved last night by the parliament, wants to set a limit to that, to get it better under control."
Van Schendelen says that, at present, immigrants are tending to swamp some Dutch cities. "Most of the immigrants, and especially the lower-qualified immigrants, settle themselves in this country in the big cities," he said. "For example, I work here in the city of Rotterdam, where 45 percent of the total population of the city is non-Dutch, is immigrant, and that is a real problem to manage."
Tightening is also going on in Sweden, where the government is proposing to make airlines and shipping companies liable if they transport illegal immigrants into the country. Under the proposed new law, carriers would be liable for heavy fines if they even unknowingly transport illegal immigrants because of insufficient documentation checks.
Not only immigrants from afar are the targets of extra attention in Western Europe. Even the citizens of the 10 European Union accession countries, which are due to join the EU in May, are facing restrictions on migration. One of the basic provisions of the EU is the free movement of labor. But in the coming enlargement -- the biggest ever -- the old EU members fear being swamped by cheap labor from the new eastern members. Under the terms of the accession agreements, the old members can restrict migration from the new members for up to seven years.
Sweden and the Netherlands, which originally said they would impose no restrictions, have just announced limits to migration for provisional periods. Britain still maintains an open door for EU immigrants but is making it more difficult for them to collect social security.
Norway, which is not in the EU, said yesterday it will copy its Nordic neighbors and limit the entry of migrant workers from the 10 accession countries. It, too, had planned to maintain an open door but succumbed to the general feeling of nerves in Western Europe about the impact of the coming enlargement on labor markets. Only Ireland is still sticking to full openness for the free movement of labor.
The European policies are also having an impact on the sources of migration. Late last month, Tunisia's parliament passed a new law to curb illegal emigration in line with a pledge to the EU that it would do more to stem the tide of migrants across the Mediterranean.