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Wednesday, March 10, 2004

No easy answers to immigration issues

LONDON -- A fundamental principle of the European Union has been freedom of movement within it and the right to work in any member country. This principle has, however, been undermined by the decision of some EU founder states to limit immigration from the new member countries in Eastern Europe for varying transitional periods, as permitted under the accession treaties.

These derogations are being justified on the grounds that migrants presumably will be willing to take jobs at wages lower than those enjoyed by nationals of the member state to which they are moving and will thus exacerbate existing unemployment problems.

The British government seems at first to have ignored the issue, but the Conservative Party opposition and the tabloid press have argued that there would be large numbers of migrants who would come to Britain to seek benefits under the allegedly generous British welfare system. (In fact, British welfare arrangements are not as generous as in many other EU states, and claimants have to go through complicated bureaucratic procedures). Under pressure, the government decided that migrants from the new member states would not be able to claim benefits until they had worked in Britain for a substantial period.

The problem of migrants from acceding countries has become entwined with the general problems of immigration and asylum. British unemployment at less than 1 million is lower than it has been for many years, and British agriculture and horticulture have been forced to look hard for seasonal workers. In their efforts, they have turned to some unsavory gang masters who appear to have been in league with even more unscrupulous people smugglers.

This problem was highlighted not so long ago when some Chinese workers being smuggled into Britain in a truck were found dead from asphyxiation. It was given further publicity when some 20 Chinese recently drowned in Morecombe Bay off the Lancashire coast in the northwest of England. The Chinese were working for gang masters at low wages to collect cockles (for export) in the notoriously treacherous sands in the bay when they were overwhelmed by the tide rushing in over very shallow quick sands.

The immigration service had been warned of the dangers but claimed that they did not have the resources to cope effectively with the problem. They were concentrating on trying to stop illegal immigrants from getting into Britain across the English Channel and claiming asylum.

Measures to control the flow of asylum seekers coming to Britain appear to have had some success if the latest statistics are to be believed, but there is still a large backlog of asylum claims to be dealt with. Asylum seekers are not allowed to work while waiting for their cases to be adjudicated, and many are forced to live in squalid circumstances.

The Home Office wants to send Afghans back to Afghanistan and Iraqis back to Iraq, but not surprisingly, in view of the lack of security in these two countries, those concerned argue strongly to be permitted to stay in Britain where living conditions and security are much better. It is far from easy to answer such questions as: Are asylum seekers in fact economic migrants, or do they have genuine grounds for being granted asylum? Would it be ethically correct to force them to return home?

On the whole I think that, although the situation is far from satisfactory, Britain has tried to maintain a fair regime for dealing with asylum seekers and that its record is better than that of some other European countries. Britain has also been generally more open to migrants coming to Britain to work, mainly because Britain has recognized its need for skilled workers especially in health services and information technology. But the change in the composition of the British workforce over the last half century has not been achieved without strains and stresses. Racism remains a problem in the police force and in some other sectors of society. In some parts of London and other large cities, immigrants seem to be in a majority.

Big problems remain in integrating immigrants into British life. One small step taken recently has been to require those granted British citizenship to attend ceremonies where they swear an oath of loyalty, but much more needs to be done to educate immigrants not only in the English language but also in the fundamental principles of British law and democracy including respect for the rights of women, which seem to be ignored in some sections of the immigrant community.

Effective measures must also be put in place to restrict the activities of gang masters and ensure that seasonal workers are paid at least the statutory minimum wage. People smuggling now seems to be as lucrative as drug smuggling, and further efforts are needed to stamp it out. The home secretary wants to introduce compulsory identity cards with photographs and other biometric data; it is doubtful whether this would be effective and the measure is strongly opposed by libertarians.

Japan also has problems with illegal immigrants and foreign workers, but foreigners represent a tiny proportion of the population (1.4 percent as of December 2001). Japan's rapidly declining population will require significant increases in immigration, if only to help look after the aged.

One estimate I saw in an article in Japan Spotlight (January/February 2004) suggests that the average annual immigration in recent years of some 50,000 would need to go up more than 10-fold to 640,000 a year to offset the rapid decline in the productive age population. It would require a revolution in Japanese attitudes to accept such an increase, and it could not be achieved without serious social strains.

Japan could cope with a smaller population as it did in the past. More labor-saving devices can be used and people can go on working in perhaps less demanding jobs until they are literally unable to work any longer. Even so the Japanese net reproduction rate of 1.32 has very serious implications for Japanese society in this century, and much more attention needs to be given to expanding immigration in addition to the emphasis on inward investment.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.

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