Economic Hard Times Increase Immigration Tensions in Europe
April 05, 2013
Amid Rome’s many architectural splendors sits an unassuming doorway. It leads to a counseling center for immigrants, run by the Catholic Church. These people, some from the European Union and some from elsewhere, have been hit by the economic crisis. Some face unemployment without government aid, and some will have to return to their home countries.
To make matters worse, they face the anger of many in Italy and other European countries: they are blamed for continuing high unemployment among local citizens and other economic problems.
At the church-sponsored Migration Study Center, Father Rene Manenti knows the problem well.
"Every time there is a crisis, it’s easier to point the finger at the immigrants for a simple reason. If we point the finger at ourselves, then it’s going to be our fault. ‘I am responsible for that.’ If I point the finger at them, they are responsible. So, it’s not me, it’s them," he explained.
That outlook had a big impact on a recent election to fill a vacant seat in the British parliament - in which a party advocating Britain's exit from the European Union came in a surprising second. Among other things, the UK Independence Party wants to freeze immigration and end the easy access now provided to people from EU countries.
But experts say the blame placed on immigrants is exaggerated.
"Of course, reality, as usual, is more complicated. There are situations in which probably, or most likely, immigrants take jobs away from Italian people. In many cases, immigrants take jobs that Italians don’t want to take for different reasons," said Father Rene Manenti.
He added that those reasons include low pay, long hours and hard physical labor, like farm work.
Indeed, the free flow of labor was part of the original concept of the European Union. And economically, its impact is “broadly neutral,” according to professor John Salt, co-director of the Migration Center at University College London. But Salt does worry about the long-term effect of large numbers of low-income workers flowing into Europe’s stronger economies.
"It’s not sustainable given the knock-on effect on land use, housing pressure, water availability, energy consumption, energy production for that matter," he said.
It’s an issue Europe will continue to struggle with as people from the weaker EU economies look for jobs in the stronger ones, and people from outside the EU continue to see moving there as a better option than staying at home.
The United States is not the only country engaged in the emotionally charged debate over immigration. The issue remains volatile in many parts of the world -- particularly in Europe, where economic hard times are exacerbating old tensions.