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EU: Migration Group Dismisses Fears Union Will Be Swamped By The East

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is dismissing fears of a massive wave of migration into European Union countries from Eastern Europe when 10 new states join the union on 1 May. In a study just released, the Geneva-based IOM forecasts temporary migration from some areas, but at what it calls reasonable levels.

Prague, 3 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The threat of invasion from the East has been a preoccupation for Western Europe for many centuries.

Today, there are no Attila the Huns, no Chingiz (Genghis) Khans, no Visigoths, or Vandals at the gates of Vienna or Rome -- and no longer even Soviet tanks to fear.

So, the new EU members, as frontier states of the union, could be trying to cope with an influx of people themselves.
Instead there are workers. Generally peaceable people who want only to make a better living. The trouble lies in their numbers. In just a matter of weeks, on 1 May, the European Union carries through its largest expansion ever, taking in 10 new member states, most of them in Eastern and Central Europe.

Current EU members, fearing an inflow of millions of job seekers into their economies, have erected bans to the free movement of labor from the accession countries for periods ranging from two to seven years. Those countries not applying bans on workers, like Ireland and Britain, are restricting newcomers' rights to social security benefits.

Present member states are allowed to impose these various temporary restrictions under the terms of accession agreements with the easterners. But the haste with which they have recently been applied has caused ill feeling in the East.

As Professor Alexander Smolar of the Warsaw-based research institute, the Stefan Batory Foundation, says, "The issue of the free labor market, this is really the hard core of what Europe is about, freedom of movement was one of the dreams during communist times, so this [set of restrictions] is perceived in Eastern [and] Central Europe not even as a practical way of solving individual or collective economic hardship, but as a symbolic closure of countries which are theoretically accepting new partners."

Now a set of studies just issued by the main international agency specializing in migration indicates that, anyway, there would be no tidal wave of migrants entering the EU from 1 May. The Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM) bases its assessment on research into migration trends in four accession countries, the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia, plus Bulgaria and Romania, which are candidates but not expected to join for several years yet.

Gervais Appave, IOM's director of migration policy and research, says the forecast is for temporary migration from some areas, but at modest levels. He says none of the studies "support the scenario of a tidal wave coming from the accession countries."

Chris Lom, an IOM spokesman, says, in fact, the reality may be quite the reverse. He says that in the first place, previous, smaller EU expansions have shown that workers would rather stay at home than emigrate if they can find jobs. Secondly, he says that migration dynamics are themselves being transformed.

"What the reports look at is a general pattern of how these societies are going to change in terms of previously being countries of origin for migrants -- meaning people were leaving in order to find better jobs abroad -- and now, because of EU accession, these countries are going to perhaps become receiving countries, meaning either people will come to these countries to work there or they will transit through them to each Western Europe," Lom said.

So, Lom says, the real issue is changing from the outflow of people from the Eastern accession countries to the inflow of immigrants to these countries. This immigration will come from both neighbors like Russia and Ukraine and from countries further away, like Iraq, Afghanistan, and South and Central Asia.

He continues, "Countries like Slovenia and the Czech Republic, as you know, are already quite attractive propositions for immigrants from poorer countries looking for work, and I think what the [IOM] reports are [really] looking at is the change of mindset this requires, and the new issues that it raises in terms of the integration of migrants, for example."

So, the new EU members, as frontier states of the union, could be trying to cope with an influx of people themselves. As analyst Smolar says, "How to assure the proper functioning of the new borders, [but] without cutting new countries from their neighbors. For example, the country I know better than others in the region is Poland, [and] in the case of Poland it is very important for it to have relatively open frontiers with Ukraine and Belarus, and certainly it is very important for Hungary to have relatively open borders with non-EU states where there are major ethnic [Hungarian] communities."

The problem will not be an easy one to solve, given the pressures on both Eastern and Western Europe of dealing with immigration in a humane way while at the same time trying to maintain control over a situation that is only likely to worsen.