Governments across Western Europe are rolling up the welcome mats.
The stunning decision by the Dutch government to expel an estimated 26,000 rejected asylum applicants last week was only the latest in a series of actions by European Union countries to tighten border controls and limit immigration to some of the world’s most generous social-welfare states.
Even center-left and leftist leaders such as British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson have in recent days responded to popular pressure to check uncontrolled flows of cheap labor — not only from developing countries but from some poorer Central and Eastern European countries set to join the European Union on May 1.
Mr. Blair has been under heavy pressure from the opposition Conservatives and from leading tabloid newspapers to halt what the prime minister himself has called “benefits tourism” — a wave of worker migration to take advantage of Britain’s health and welfare standards.
Until yesterday, Britain and Ireland had been the only members of the 15-nation European Union not expected to impose “transitional” curbs — which can last up to seven years — on workers migrating from Poland, Hungary, Estonia and the other seven countries joining the bloc in May.
But Mr. Blair’s government yesterday rolled out tough new work and welfare restrictions, requiring immigrant workers from eight of the new EU countries to register with the government and banning them from collecting social and employment benefits for at least two years.
If workers from those new EU countries “can’t support themselves, they will be put out of the country,” Mr. Blair said in a British Broadcasting Corp. interview yesterday.
The British government also announced yesterday stricter controls for asylum seekers from Somalia, who constitute the largest group of immigrants seeking shelter in Britain.
The amendment to Britain’s 1976 Race Relations Act would allow immigration officials to give priority attention to Somali asylum applications without running afoul of antidiscrimination laws. The three-month pilot program, if successful, could be applied to applicants from other countries, including Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Turkey.
Sweden’s Mr. Persson earlier this month predicted “enormous problems” for his country unless immigration from the Baltics and Eastern Europe was curtailed.
Sweden is expected to impose immigration controls for up to five years and the Social Democratic government recently passed measures that would punish air and shipping lines if they even unwittingly allowed illegal immigrants to cross into Sweden.
Finland, Denmark and Belgium have all announced waiting periods of at least two years before fully opening their borders to workers from the new EU entrants, and France, Spain and Italy are expected to do so in the coming days. Germany and Austria have already said they plan to impose the maximum seven-year transition period, bringing complaints from leaders in Poland and other EU hopefuls.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in a speech to the European Parliament in January, said the anti-immigrant political tide in Europe, fed by “images of floods of unwelcome entrants and threats to societies and identities,” had “vilified, even dehumanized” those seeking asylum or a better life.
“The vast majority of immigrants are industrious, courageous and determined,” Mr. Annan said. “They don’t want a free ride.”
Maureen Lynch, research director at the Washington-based Refugees International, said recent actions by EU governments, as well as by Australia and the United States, are setting a poor example for less wealthy countries around the globe, such as Iran and Pakistan, which are host to far larger numbers of refugees.
“These are countries that are supposed to be global leaders, that should be setting the standard,” she said. “They need to take that role seriously.”
But as in the Dutch parliament’s vote last week, high ideals are crashing into hard political realities. Politicians such as the late Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands and Joerg Haider in Austria made stunning electoral gains against mainstream parties in recent years by placing anti-immigration policies at the heart of their platforms.
Voters across Western Europe have given increasing support to politicians who argue that many of those seeking asylum claiming political persecution at home actually are seeking economic gains.
The failure of many traditional center-left and center-right parties to even acknowledge the problem posed by immigration only enhanced the popularity of figures like Mr. Fortuyn and Mr. Haider, pollsters say.
British Home Secretary David Blunkett, Mr. Blair’s point man on the immigration issue, noted in an opinion piece in December that “governments of the left which fail to address their public’s concerns about immigration, security and law and order have been swept from power by the right, sometimes the far right.
“Putting our head in the sand is only an option if we want to go the way of the liberal left in Europe,” he wrote.