- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 14, 2001

TUNIS, Tunisia The war on Islamic terrorists blamed for the September 11 attacks in the United States is creating a crisis for Arab migration to affluent European countries.
European governments are refusing or limiting visas for potential Arab immigrants from North Africa, an international conference here was told this month. Immigrants already in Western Europe are said to be experiencing increased discrimination at work and social ostracism.
Several conference statements implied that because of the fear of Islamic terrorism, Europe was barricading itself against the Arab world. Some participants at the meeting questioned whether migration facilitated global understanding or whether it led to tension.
Delegates from countries along the southern and northern shores of the Mediterranean Sea found no easy answers early this month at the 13th International Symposium sponsored by Tunisia's ruling party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD). Some called for a more relaxed policy and others deplored the "terrorist label" applied to Arabs after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Twelve formal presentations and dozens of impromptu statements by the participants revealed a deep rift cutting across the sea known in antiquity as "mare nostrum" "our sea" and an important portal of migrations throughout history.
Now, the population movement appears to be threatened, harming immigrants seeking work and freedom, as well as the economies of the countries that receive them. The human repercussions are likely to create a new line of division, and a challenge to globalization and freedom of movement.
The conference revealed major differences of views about migration, with countries of the Mediterranean's "south" asking for free access to the more affluent side of the sea, an idea politely opposed by the government in the "north."
Nonetheless, it became clear at the gathering that Western Europe is prepared to accept certain Arab immigrants, but within defined quotas.
Almost immediately after the Tunis meeting, Germany's ruling left-of-center and green coalition proposed to reform the laws to permit larger immigration but of "qualified" labor to offset its own falling birthrate.
German Interior Minister Otto Schily said the proposed law would "control immigration better than before, and reduce violations of the law on requests for asylum."
Germany has a large Muslim immigrant population estimated at more than 3 million, mainly from Turkey. Members of the conservative opposition argue that the immigrants from Muslim countries rarely assimilate into the predominantly Christian communities of the host countries and treat their stay in Europe as a temporary economic necessity.
The European Union recently signed association agreements with Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Chris Patten, European commissioner in charge of external relations, said the agreements stressed the need to combat illegal immigration by criminals seeking "to enrich themselves on the misery of others and [by] trafficking of the most odious kind."
In an address to the Tunis conference, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali described the right to migration as "a fundamental part of human rights" and "a factor of stability and cooperation on both shores of the Mediterranean."
Stressing that immigration influences policies, cultures and markets, he said he hopes that "the recent events will not curtail the movement and cut the bridges between countries."
To Noureddine Hached, assistant secretary-general of the 22-member Arab League, "migration has become a social issue, frequently causing misunderstandings."
Pointing out that immigrants from the Maghreb, as North African countries are known as a regional group, constitute a majority of all immigrants to Western Europe, he complained that many were losing "their Arab identity."
An estimated 2.35 million people from the Maghreb nations mainly from Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco live in 11 European countries. This figure does not include those who have become naturalized citizens of the countries in which they now live some 500,000 in France.
According to United Nations statistics, 150 million immigrants of all nationalities are scattered around the world.
Mr. Hached asserted that because immigrants are "spreading Islam in Europe," xenophobia has been on the rise and has worsened after the September 11 attacks.
Consequently, the Arab League proposes to create an observer group to monitor the treatment of immigrants in Europe, he said, adding that "free movement of goods should be accompanied by free movement of people."
Hedi Mhenni, a Central committee member of the RCD and another among the key speakers at the Tunis parley charged that "by closing the door to legal immigrants," European governments were encouraging illegal immigration. Smuggling people into Europe has become a virtual industry, with many migrants paying fortunes to travel under hazardous conditions in search of a new life and economic opportunity.
Mr. Mhenni charged that many immigrants from Arab countries "are deprived of union membership, permanently threatened with deportation and rejected by the local population." He said 30 percent of North Africans living in Western Europe are unemployed.
"Many immigrants live in fear and uncertainty," he said. "Their children are disoriented they don't know where they belong."
Arab conference speakers concluded that "migrants fill the least coveted jobs" in Europe, thus allowing Europeans "to better participate in the development of their countries."
Others said the treatment of immigrants was damaging the relationship between the Mediterranean's "north" and "south" and called for adoption of an "international charter" to guarantee the rights of migrant labor.


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