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EU: Attitudes Hardening In Liberal Scandinavia, Britain (Immigration Series Part 4)

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Relatively liberal asylum policies in the Scandinavian countries and Britain are coming under increasing threat, reflecting a Europewide trend. Denmark has chosen to toughen its laws on legal immigration, a policy its neighbors say simply pushes more people to seek illegal channels. Sweden, by contrast, says it wants to make its asylum procedures more transparent, and thereby fight xenophobia. Britain, one of Europe's largest immigrant destinations, says it will penalize countries that do not take their illegal immigrants back. In this last in a four-part series on immigration, RFE/RL looks at the situation in two Nordic states, Sweden and Denmark, and Britain.

Prague, 24 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Denmark, traditionally one of Europe's most liberal countries, has brought in stricter new rules this year to make the country less attractive to immigrants. It also wants to move resident foreigners off of welfare and into jobs.

The rules are part of a trend across Europe to restrict immigration that is finding an echo in the traditionally liberal countries of Scandinavia and Britain.

Danish Minister for Integration Bertel Haarder set the tone of the new program when he said earlier this year that foreigners in his country are a net burden on society, who "cost more than they give back." His comments came against a background of unemployment in the foreign-born community that is three times higher than that of the native Danish community.

Danish officials claim the new measures have "massive" support among the Danish public and cite a survey released on 15-16 June that indicates high levels of approval for the steps being taken. And they point out that in the Netherlands, another traditionally liberal country, a new conservative government is moving to adopt similar regulations.

Danish rights groups, however, have their reservations, with the local refugee council saying the new rules may have created conditions less favorable for refugees than in some other EU states.

The Danish program appears to be successful in cutting the numbers of foreigners arriving to live in the country. Officials in Copenhagen say the estimate of admissions for 2002 is about 7,000, about half the level of the previous year.

Conversely, the number of arrivals is rising in Sweden and Norway and officials in both countries blame the Danish restrictions for the increased flow. A Danish official, who would not be named, said, however, that authorities have investigated the matter and found the claims incorrect. He said this was demonstrated by studying the arrivals by country of origin. Asylum seekers arriving in Sweden are usually not from groups normally applying to stay in Denmark.

Sweden's minister of immigration, Jan Karlsson, said at any rate it's not a big problem for his country and that the numbers involved are small. Still, he said he is not happy with the Danish package. "It is not only about the reception of refugees, but also about the integration of people already permitted permanently to stay, and we [in Sweden] think [Denmark's rules are] a serious step backwards," Karlsson said.

Karlsson said Sweden is not planning to tighten its asylum regulations. But he did say the southern European Union countries, like Italy and Greece, where many of the immigrants enter Europe, should play a stronger role in halting the immigrant flow. He said these countries must harmonize their asylum policies with the rest of the EU, and not simply allow refugees in and then "wave" them north.

Karlsson said Sweden, unlike Denmark, is trying to fight anti-immigrant sentiment by making its asylum procedures more transparent.

Asked whether Sweden feels it has done a good job in assimilating its immigrant population, Karlsson says: "Given the circumstances that we had an enormous influx of refugees during the Yugoslav wars in the beginning of the 1990s, and at the same time we lost half a million jobs in Sweden, I would say we have managed reasonably. When we look now at the level of employment among non-European immigrants, they are the group that is improving the quickest."

Sweden's policy may make the most sense in the long run. International groups say that merely tightening asylum laws, as Denmark has done, only drives people toward illegal immigration. It does not deter them from traveling to Europe in the first place.

Doris Peschke, the general secretary of the Churches Commission for Migrants in Europe, put it this way: "There is a growing percentage of persons who do not even dare to ask for asylum anymore, and who would rather look for illegal possibilities of work, because they feel they are not welcome in the asylum procedure, and it has become so complicated. So they would rather look for some work, and with that, for some acceptance [in the community]."

Peschke said that since the 11 September terrorist attacks on the United States, the emphasis in EU thinking has been on curbing irregular immigration, and plans to develop a legal immigration program have languished.

Another Brussels-based expert, Joanna Apap, of the Centre for European Policy Studies, agrees. She said that because of opposition from member states, the European Commission has watered down its proposal for new and stronger family-reunification rules. That's significant, because family reunification accounts for some 65 percent of legal migration into the EU. In that sense, the family-reunification program serves as the basis for the development of a legal immigration policy. "I do not think the [EU] institutions based in Brussels are being courageous enough in moving in the direction which they want to move, and I think it's high time for the commission to come out with a declaration that the EU now considers itself as needing immigration, and that it is also an area for immigration, and that the [previous policy of] zero immigration has failed," Apap said.

Turning to Britain, that country is a major target for asylum seekers and irregular immigrants because of its large and long-established ethnic-minority communities, and because of the high availability of casual work. The use of the English language is also seen as a big drawing card.

London has taken a firm line against illegals and, unlike Sweden, for example, it supports the idea that the home countries of illegal immigrants should be punished if they do not cooperate by taking back their expelled citizens. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, referring to the possibility of curtailing aid to such countries, said: "It's entirely reasonable that we should seek to use all appropriate levers to ensure that [immigrants' home countries] do their bit. They may not be able to stop economic migration out, but for sure they can help to ensure that people who are rejected as asylum seekers are taken back and properly accommodated."

British officials say they want to work enthusiastically with their EU partners to develop a common Europewide approach to dealing with the problem. That includes recognition that legal immigration is a necessary part of any solution. But at the same time, the British have not shied away from unilateral and sometimes radical steps.

For instance, they instituted at Prague's airport a year ago unprecedented "pre-clearance checks" on passengers to Britain. This was to weed out bogus asylum seekers, mainly Czech Roma, following a sudden rise in the number of asylum seekers arriving in Britain from the Czech Republic.

In that, the measure appears effective. In a single two-week period, 47 people were turned back. But Roma and human-rights groups have criticized the arrangement as an infringement of rights, insofar as they are clearly aimed at Roma.

(This is the last of a four-part series on immigration.)