Boston Review
CURRENT ISSUE
table of contents
FEATURES
new democracy forum
new fiction forum
poetry
fiction
film
archives
ABOUT US
masthead
mission
rave reviews
contests
writers’ guidelines
internships
advertising
SERVICES
bookstore locator
literary links
subscribe
RSS feed

Search bostonreview.net
Search the Web
Google


 

Common Ground

An immigration crisis in the European Union

Michael Standaert

Who are these friends, all scattered like dry leaves? / The radio says, "They are just deportees." —Woody Guthrie, "Deportees"

8 The ferries crossing the English Channel from Calais to Dover sometimes stop to rescue asylum seekers paddling to Britain in small boats. Other times the ferries don't stop; the boats are empty, drifting like leaves on the water.

These perilous channel crossings could easily be compared to the flights of Cubans to the United States, but for the fact that these travelers have already come thousands of miles from their own countries and continents, through Spain, France, and Belgium and onward toward Britain. Some have already crossed the Mediterranean from Morocco to Spain, or from Turkey to Greece, or perhaps hired smugglers to slip them in darkness across the Adriatic from the Balkans into Italy. Some have died underneath trains in vain attempts to burrow their way through the Channel Tunnel. Others have roasted to death in the backs of trucks.

And some migrants detained by immigration officials in other EU countries over the last ten years have met equally brutal fates. In May of 1999 a Sudanese asylum seeker named Aamir Mohamed Ageeb was deported by German federal border authorities. They hustled him onto a flight bound for Cairo, bound his hands and feet, and strapped a motorcycle helmet tightly to his head. He died of asphyxiation shortly after boarding. Marcus Omofuma of Nigeria died the same month while being deported from Austria, also from asphyxiation. Semira Adamu, a twenty-year-old Nigerian woman forcibly deported from Belgium in 1998, died the same way when her face was pushed into a cushion and held there. One of the officers involved said his use of force was necessary to "avoid disturbing other passengers."

The lucky ones land in the airports and overstay their tourist or student visas. Some work legitimately after achieving legal residence. Others work illegally as maids, indentured sex servants and whores, drug dealers, au pairs, or in low-skilled service trades. These clandestine travelers, refugees, asylum seekers, and dead deportees are desperate products of poverty, war, overpopulation, globalization and anti-globalization—byproducts of failed states and failed empires. The gruesome stories of suffering and death are just the extreme manifestations of the brewing crisis around immigration throughout the European Union.

*  *  *

Belgium is exemplary. In autumn of 2002, the debut of Kassablanka, a recreation of the Romeo and Juliet story by the Flemish director Guy Lee Thys created a stir in Antwerp, where the movie was set. Leilah, the modern-day Juliet, is a Muslim girl of Moroccan descent and the daughter of a fundamentalist who preaches jihad against the West. She falls in love with Berwout, or Romeo, a Flemish man whose father is a member of the far-right nationalist and anti-immigrant party Vlaams Blok. In the end, love triumphs over hatred.

On the streets of Antwerp, however, there has been more hate than love. Over the last two years Muslim immigrant youth have taken to rioting in protest of alleged violence against their community. In November 2002, Antwerp exploded for two nights after the murder of a young teacher of Moroccan origin by a Flemish man. The Muslim community said it was a racist attack; officials said the man was simply deranged. A few other apparently racially motivated murders also took place in the capital city of Brussels over the past year.

The protagonists in this real-life theater are the xenophobic Flemish nationalist party Vlaams Blok, led by Filip DeWinter, and the often vehemently anti-Israeli Arab European League (AEL), led by Dyab Abou Jahjah, a Belgian citizen of Lebanese origin. Caught in the middle are the center-left government of the recently re-elected Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt and the old Jewish community of Antwerp, located in the center of the largest diamond industry in the world.

In elections held this past May, Belgium again embraced the middle ground, bringing the center-left Flemish Liberals and Democrats (VLD) back for another four years with Verhofstadt at the helm. Predictably, the VLD has formed a coalition government with other center-left and leftist parties from both the French- and the Flemish-Dutch-speaking regions to form a ‘cordon sanitaire' against Vlaams Blok, virtually shutting them out of national debate. In 2000 Verhofstadt said that due to the cordon Vlaams Blok was "doomed to disappear in the long run."

In Antwerp this cordon seems only to have increased popular support for Vlaams Blok. In 1999 they received 9.9 percent of the compulsory vote nationally, but around 15 percent across Flanders and 33 percent in Antwerp. A year later Vlaams Blok overwhelmed city elections by taking a third of the seats in Antwerp and 20 out of 55 city council seats. They achieved small gains in 2003, too. Across Flanders they captured 19 percent of the vote, enough to take 18 parliamentary seats—the most in their 25-year history. This may not seem like many, but considering the VLD came out with 25 seats (49 in combination with the center- left Reform Movement) before forming the ruling coalition, a sudden surge by Vlaams Blok in 2007 could put them in position to break down the cordon. The Antwerp party boss, Filip DeWinter, has his eyes on the direct election for the mayoral seat in the city elections coming this year. Frank Vanhecke, president of Vlaams Blok, is looking toward 2009 European Parliament elections for the establishment of a Europe-wide right-wing party and has already met with parties similar to his own from other member states to discuss how they would cooperate in 2004 and 2009 elections.

Founded in 1977 by former members of the Flemish SS and leaders of neo-Nazi and Holocaust-denial movements, Vlaams Blok's original program was to abolish the Belgian state, establish an independent Flanders, completely halt immigration, and forcibly repatriate non-European immigrants. Over time, calls for independence and forced repatriation have softened, and Vlaams Blok has even been embraced by some of Antwerp's 20,000 Jews. Because of its pro-Israeli stance and promises of better security after Jewish shops were attacked in the 2002 riots, Vlaams Blok has been seen increasingly by the Jewish community as a lesser of multiple evils, even with its anti-Semitic past. With the AEL as the new scapegoat, some local Jews don't consider Vlaams Blok to be the threat it once was.

For Vlaams Blok the immigrant activist Abou Jahjah, dubbed "Belgium's Malcolm X" by the press, is an easy recruiting tool. For the ruling government he is a thorn in the side and an international embarrassment. Abou Jahjah is 31, speaks five languages, and holds a political-science degree. He emerged as a major figure after founding the Arab European League in 2001 and the Sabra and Shatila Committee, which brought a war-crimes case against Israeli Prime Minster Ariel Sharon into the Belgian courts.

Jahjah's platform for the AEL in Belgium and across Europe calls for non- assimilation (he calls assimilation ‘cultural rape'), Islamic schools, bilingual education for Arab children, hiring quotas for immigrants, and equal representation of Arabic in this nation of around 10 million. The last is a valid point: in a country that recognizes French, Flemish-Dutch, and German as official languages, there are nearly 300,000 Arabic speakers in Belgium and only 70,000 or so German. The AEL website (which, strangely for a pro-Arab language group, is in English) is decidedly pro-Palestinian and anti- Israeli, and even reports that the Israeli security forces had sent assassins to take Jahjah out in Belgium. DeWinter wants Jahjah stripped of his Belgian citizenship and deported for lying about his refugee status as an asylum seeker, falsely claiming Hezbollah was out to get him, and using a phony marriage to get Belgian citizenship. Jahjah has helped organize youth to "police the police" by using video cameras to record evidence of racism among the force, a third of which is estimated to be made up of Vlaams Blok members. He was arrested as an instigator of the November 2002 riots but was released five days later for a lack of evidence.

Another Antwerp immigrant activist is taking a different approach. Fauzaya Talhaoui is a Moroccan Berber immigrant and a parliamentary representative for the Flemish Green Party (Agalev). Her style is less harsh, more integrationist than Jahjah's, who calls her an "Uncle Tom" and a collaborator. She is well-educated in law and politics, the first immigrant woman directly elected to the Belgian parliament. In 1962 her father came to Belgium from Morocco as a guest construction worker, and Talhoui, the eldest of eight children, followed in 1977 at the age of eight. "People like to say our family is a success story," she told me in an interview in 2002. "But what is a success story? We integrated. We didn't wear scarves, but we still were practicing Muslims.

"On the European level, it is not popular to talk about immigration issues. In ten years we will have a deficit of workers. If we don't integrate people now, give them education and language training, they will not be able to fill the positions."

But that integration has been slow in coming, she says. And with the atmosphere in Antwerp increasingly polarized between Vlaams Blok and the AEL, it is slowing to a halt. For a long time the media ignored immigrants, she says, especially young Muslim men. Since many local shopkeepers think they will scare away customers if hired, they are cut off even from low-level jobs.

"The more that young people get excluded, excluded from work, getting terrible education," Talhaoui says, "the more market there is for them to be attached to fundamentalist groups. These groups give them an identity that they do not get out of regular society. The less we do on immigration and integration, the less we can do to get ahold of the youth. Some issues are just not popular. A lot of people accept the situation and don't do anything about it. Immigrants themselves, and the parents of immigrant youth, need to embrace education. There are actually a lot of jobs, but the young people are not encouraged to go on to university.

"If you want the young people to get off the streets, give them jobs, give them education—don't keep them out on the streets. The way things are set up now only keeps them on the streets."

Like Jahjah, she is opposed to Vlaams Blok. But Vlaams Blok respects her in certain ways for what she and her family have done to integrate. "They gain support mainly out of fear. If they could scandalize me, they would," she jokes. "But I'm not a drug user. I'm not jobless. I'm an academic, a scholar." Talhaoui is not very fond of Jahjah and the AEL either. "I'm not sure what he wants. When I hear them compare themselves with the Palestinian issues, saying they are ‘the Palestinians of Belgium' I just can't believe it. What kind of comparison is that? I can't see why a Lebanese, university-educated rich guy like him would be stirring up this trouble. He's not interested in the Turks or other immigrants. Only the Palestinian issue. I'm not sure what his agenda is. There are a lot of people who are proud of him.

"There is a lot of frustration in Antwerp. Sometimes I'm afraid to see more accidents like the riots, the shootings, or terrorist attacks elsewhere."

Ferre Verdeyen is also afraid. A native Flemish man, Verdeyen works in the suburb of Berchem at one of the cultural centers where Flemish natives and the immigrant youth meet. He lives in a section of Antwerp populated mainly by immigrants, where he has watched violence and crime grow over the last 15 years. As poverty has worsened over the last decade, Islamism has become more popular. Many of his friends are Muslim immigrants, he says. After September 11, though, he says many of those friends have acted differently, that they are no longer sure how to interact. The loss of friendships is just one symptom of a growing fissure in the community.

"I want to live in a multicultural Belgium," Verdeyen says. "I don't want to live in a Fascist Belgium, either from Vlaams Blok or from the AEL."

*  *  *

The situation in Belgium, and specifically the polarization in Antwerp, is a sign of the growing urgency to reconsider how immigration policy is being handled in the EU. Right-wing anti-immigration parties can now be found in most EU countries. Austria has the infamous Jörg Haider. In France, Jean-Marie Le Pen and his National Front party gave the center-left a huge scare by taking the first round of elections in 2002. In the Netherlands, the populist anti-immigrant politician Pim Fortuyn led his burgeoning party to the forefront of Dutch politics before he was shot and killed by a young man who disagreed with his stance on fur farming. Later that same young man claimed as his defense that he was protecting Muslim immigrants. After the unusual success of Fortuyn's party in the elections shortly after his death, the Dutch government went through a series of convulsions leading to the eventual dissolution of the leaderless Pim Fortuyn's List. In Italy last year, members of right-wing parties pushed through stricter immigration legislation, and one member of the Northern League suggested that the Italian navy fire on boats bringing illegal immigrants over from North Africa. Last fall, as the holder of the six-month rotating presidency of the EU, Italy proposed EU-wide quotas for the admission of immigrants from developing countries.

Recent successes by populist anti-immigration parties in these countries—as well as in Spain and Portugal—point to a simmering discomfort with and a persisting confusion about policies of immigration and asylum throughout the EU. On October 2003, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi softened his usual notorious language and called for Europe to come together to form a common immigration policy. (At the time, Italy held the EU presidency. Ireland now holds it, and will until mid-2004.) That week the bodies of 13 immigrants were found in a boat drifting off the Italian coast. The 15 Somalis who survived cold and starvation told how they had dumped 50 more bodies of friends and relatives overboard during the two-week trek across the Mediterranean from Libya. One week earlier the bodies of seven immigrants had been found in a boat off the coast of Sicily.

Whether Berlusconi's response to the tragedies will turn into concerted action is hard to say. Dick Oosting, the director of Amnesty International in the EU, points to five issues about asylum policy that the EU has been wrestling with for the last decade: (1) a common policy on temporary protection for sudden influxes of refugees from war-torn regions; (2) a common policy regarding reception conditions and the education, employment and social security provided for refugees; (3) common agreements on asylum procedures and rules about applications and appeals processes; (4) agreement on the Dublin Convention, which assigns responsibility for an asylum seeker to either the country of destination or the first country of entry; (5) functional definitions of refugees, asylum seekers, and stateless persons. The 1999 Amsterdam Treaty committed the EU to resolving these issues with a common policy by 2004, though so far member states have largely forged independent policies.

The Schengen Agreement, fully implemented in 1995, establishes the right of nationals to move freely across borders. The fact that you can drive from Spain to Denmark, then across the bridge to Sweden without being checked at a border has added to the physical sense of a European Community, especially for the well-educated young and mobile elite. But for less mobile, more impoverished European natives, as well as immigrants and refugees who increasingly compete for space and employment, physical and economic movement are not an option. Adding traumatized refugees who have fled war, famine, and other calamities, as well as economic migrants who falsely claim asylum in Europe's already overburdened state welfare systems (health care, education, unemployment, housing) further strains the ties that bind.

"Part of the whole pattern of the debate recently is that asylum and immigration have been lumped together into one basket," Oosting says. "With zero immigration or severely restricted immigration, asylum becomes the only chance to seek legal residence. It is important to deal with immigration issues and migration along with asylum, but not by unduly burdening the asylum system as the only way to come in."

In his view, the immigration agenda set at the Seville Summit in 2002 had a negative influence on the common course of action. What with the fears surrounding September 11 and the coarse language in politics and in the media, finding common ground is becoming difficult: "Seville emphasized control of borders and sending people back. There was a lot of tough talk at Seville, but nothing hard and fast. Our main problem is that lumping immigration and asylum together is making policy increasingly difficult to debate and come to agreements."

With Berlusconi's cries fading in the background, Austria voted to approve Europe's harshest asylum laws at the end of October 2003. The provisions included the deportation of asylum seekers while their cases are still under appeal—proceedings that can last upwards of three years—and require immigrants to issue full statements about their desire to seek asylum within 72 hours of arriving in the country.

The focus on new restrictions to separate legitimate from illegitimate asylum seekers may decrease the number of asylum applicants, and it will certainly increase the number of illegal immigrants, burdening the national government's security apparatus and immigration department and raising the risk of tragic outcomes. It is in the interest of EU members that both immigrants and asylum seekers are integrated into their adopted countries. People who are willing to risk their lives to come to the EU, whether for economic or political reasons, will most likely work to become good citizens. And without new citizens, an aging Europe with low birthrates will have trouble sustaining its economic capacity and will lose the rich and surprising benefits that flow from cultural diversity and immigration.

The new restrictions on immigration and asylum have also turned the illegal movement of people into a lucrative business for international organized crime. Tied to the movement of illicit drugs, counterfeit currency, forged documents, weapons, diamonds, slaves, and identities, human trafficking is both disastrous for the people who are trafficked and inextricable from the operation of terrorism networks.

Dr. Louise I. Shelley, director of the Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at American University, argues that the war against terrorism cannot be separated from the fight against transnational crime: terrorists often engage in organized crime to support themselves financially; both terrorism and transnational crime often operate using network structures, which sometimes intersect; both operate in areas with little governmental control, weak enforcement of laws, and open borders; both manipulate local officials to achieve their objectives; both often use similar modern technology to communicate; both launder their money using the same methods and operators.

To disrupt the link between criminal human trafficking and terrorist networks, the EU must construct a coherent policy on immigration and asylum as well as a cooperative EU border-security apparatus. But while there have been sporadic declarations about fighting organized crime, creating high-tech crime centers, encouraging more cooperation between Europol, Interpol, and security services in other countries, and setting up commissions to study organized crime, the importance of establishing a common immigration policy has not yet been recognized. As long as individual member states act alone, organized crime will find a way to get around each member's regulations.

It should be added that many of those illegally trafficked into the EU are women between the ages of 18 and 35, bound for the sex industry. Most have their identities taken away and lack the language, education, or legal savvy to approach local authorities. They also fear deportation or retaliation from their "bosses."

The number of women trafficked into the sex industry is difficult to establish. A number of countries in a 2002 Europol report on human trafficking failed to give data, though Spain reported over 12,000 and Italy estimated nearly 7,000 street prostitutes of foreign origin walked their city lanes. Estimates of the number of legal and illegal Eastern European women engaged in the sex industry have been as high as 500,000, making this not only an immigration issue but also a public health issue. The Europol report recommended that provisions be made to grant victims amnesty and asylum in exchange for turning over evidence on human traffickers that leads to their prosecution. Meanwhile, the report found no existing joint efforts among any member states to combat trafficking. It also indicated that border control agencies in EU applicant countries are chronically underfunded, underequipped, undertrained, and potentially more corruptible than their EU counterparts.

Progress has been discouragingly slow in developing a common immigration policy, and meeting the 2004 deadline seems unlikely. In late November the EU Council of Ministers welcomed an agreement on the establishment of a European agency for the management of external borders and issued an asylum-procedures directive, but there is really no word on when this would be implemented and what it would actually do. Many doubt that it would be more than a combination of each country's harshest legislation and might well put the migrants in more danger. Meanwhile, the bodies of 21 immigrants attempting to cross from Albania to Italy were pulled from a speedboat in early January.

A major obstacle to progress has been procedural. Every six months the EU presidency changes hands and the new president sets the agenda. With Ireland's prime minister installed as the new president in January 2004, it is difficult to imagine immigration rising to the top of the list. Ireland, unburdened by a significant immigration problem, may lack the political will to be an influential leader on this issue.

One positive development has been the December 9, 2003, launching of a Global Commission on International Migration (GCIM), backed by the UN. The commission will deliver recommendations on both managing migration and protecting migrants' rights. Kofi Annan praised the introduction of the GCIM as offering both economic benefits to host countries and safeguards for human rights.

That same month a Brussels court convicted four former Belgian police officers of assault, battery and negligence in the death of the expelled Nigerian migrant Semira Adamu.

*  *  *

In the heart of Antwerp, in the center of the Grote Markt, stands the greening statue of the city hero, a Roman soldier by the name of Silvius Brabo. Just to the east of the center lies the Scheldt River and Castle Steen, a fortress dating back to 700 A.D., when it was used as a Roman trading post. It is said that at this spot a giant called Druon Antigon once charged unfortunate souls a toll to cross the Scheldt. Those who could not afford the toll had their hands cut off and thrown into the river, giving "to throw a hand" or Antwerpen, its name. According to the legend, Brabo cut off the giant's hands and threw them into the river, thus freeing the bridgehead and the people of the city from the beast. It is usually from here that marches by Vlaams Blok or the Arab European League begin peacefully and sometimes end violently.

Another beast sits in the dim corridors of the Mayer van den Bergh Museum, a short distance away. That beast is Dulle Griet, otherwise known as "Mad Meg," Breughel's apocalyptic portrayal of a madwoman wandering through a haunting war-torn landscape.

Europe has a choice between these two symbols of its past. If it can come together to form a coherent common policy on immigration and asylum, the Brabo bridgehead may be freed. If not, Breughel's vision may describe Europe's future. <


Michael Standaert is a writer living in Iowa City, Iowa. From 2001 to 2002 he studied and worked in Europe, mainly in Brussels. He is a member of the Euro-correspondent.com journalist network.

Originally published in the February/March 2004 issue of Boston Review.



Copyright Boston Review, 1993–2006. All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce without permission.

 | home | new democracy forum | fiction, film, poetry | archives | masthead | subscribe |