'An embrace from Silvio Berlusconi is generally best avoided, at any age. But one of the more dubious welcomes he extended earlier this year was to 20,000 or so migrants from Tunisia in an exodus following the Arab spring.'

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New Internationalist

The No-Nonsense Guide to International Migration

Author of our No-Nonsense Guide to International Migration, Peter Stalker discusses the complexities of international migration in the wake of the Arab Spring. Chapter 1 and the foreword are available on our website and you can also view all of the weekly No-Nonsense guide blogs.

The No-Nonsense Guide to International Migration
by Peter Stalker

An embrace from Silvio Berlusconi is generally best avoided, at any age. But one of the more dubious welcomes he extended earlier this year was to 20,000 or so migrants from Tunisia in an exodus following the Arab spring. In this case his friendship came with an imminent expiry date. The Italian government issued the visitors with residence permits, but only temporary ones, and firmly pointed Tunisian and other travellers in the general direction of the Alps. After all, these permits, although festooned with Italian stamps, should also entitle the migrants to move freely within the ‘Schengen Zone’, a group of 25 European countries between which there are no passport controls. Unfortunately for Silvio, and the migrants, France saw through this ruse, promptly rounded them up at the border and despatched them back to Italy.

These manoeuvres have now thrown the future of EU migration policy into question. In proposals to be discussed by the EU’s home affairs ministers on May 12, the Schengen Zone rules would be altered so that in ‘exceptional circumstances’, a member of the zone judged not to be controlling its own borders with sufficient diligence or ferocity would see passport controls reintroduced. Just how exceptional even these circumstances are is open to question.

While Italy may complain about people coming from Tunisia these numbers are minor compared with arrivals in Tunisia itself. As Bjarte Vandvie of the NGO network, the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, has pointed out, Tunisia has welcomed some 300,000 people fleeing the fighting in Libya: ‘It is Tunisia that needs help handling its refugees, not Italy.’ It should be noted of course that the UK is not even a member of the Schengen group so there was little chance of any Tunisians making it across the channel.

Doubtless, many of these migrants would be classified as economic refugees. Unemployment in Tunisia is officially around 13 per cent, but probably much higher. Indeed, the original trigger for the Arab unrest was the cry of pain from a desperate young Tunisian man, not even allowed to sell vegetables by the roadside. At that point, he would have been unable to migrate to Italy, thanks to a series of agreements through which the Italy effectively bribed the repressive governments of Tunisia and Libya to ensure that their citizens, however unhappy, stayed firmly put. With the regimes disintegrating, these dubious pacts have also been unravelling and restless people have at last able to leave if they are desperate enough to take to the fishing boats.

As I pointed out in The No-Nonsense Guide to International Migration, the people most likely to migrate are not generally the poorest, but rather those whose lives have already been disrupted and who can also scrape enough cash together to pay for a voyage. Globalization and rapid economic development tend to shake people loose from their surroundings. But suddenly unlocking the political shackles can have much the same effect. As UN staff in Tunisia have noted: ‘Some villages appear largely empty of their young male population, with only women, children and elderly people remaining.’

It would be a shame if the EU commission were to start weakening the Schengen Agreement, which is arguably one of the EU’s greatest achievements. But many governments across Europe are coming under pressure from the anti-immigrant far right, whether the Northern League in Italy, or the National Front in France. The latest in this depressing trend are the True Finns who seem likely to form part of Finland’s next coalition government.

If immigration policy is contentious in Europe, it has also become increasingly polarized in the US, with aggressive state legislation, notably in Arizona, which  among other things would have made it a crime for immigrants not to carry immigration papers and allow the police to demand to inspect these. Mercifully a Federal judge stepped in just before the law was to come into effect. Judge Noonan said: ‘That 50 individual states or one individual state should have a foreign policy is absurdity too gross to be entertained.’ Unfortunately, this has not stopped other states, including Utah and Florida, from taking a similar stance.

High time that the Obama administration, mindful of its Hispanic support base, demonstrated a bit more leadership. Oddly in this case, he might do worse than follow George W. Bush. The previous president is not usually a source of inspiration but from 2004 did try to rationalize US immigration policy, even proposing to offer unauthorized migrants a path to legality. However, faced with opposition from the Republican far right he eventually threw in the towel. President Obama’s approach has been less than audacious. In fact, his administration has been deporting more people than Bush’s. However, as reported by Americasvoice.org he has been  ‘Meeting with a number of Hispanic leaders, so a more cohesive policy may eventually been forthcoming.’

Migration policy is a bit more pro-active in some of the immigrant source countries. I am  writing this from the Philippines which officially has around 2 million workers overseas and regards them as ‘modern day heroes’. The country does make efforts to protect workers through the Philippines Overseas Employment administration.

For example, it asked Saudi employers of domestic workers to submit their police clearance, and guarantee a salary of at least $400 per month. The Saudi government response? It stopped all hiring of Filipino domestics. But even the Philippines is ‘coming under fire from its national federation of migrant groups, Migrante International, for its “slow, dismaying and disorganized action’ in repatriating  workers  trapped in Libya.

The No-Nonsense Guide to International Migration argues for the kind of activist support for migrants that the Philippines Overseas Employment administration at least tries to engage in. But ultimately it is the destination countries who wield most of the power – which they generally do in an erratic and often exploitative fashion. Silvio may be one of the more egregious violators of immigrant rights. But he is far from alone.


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