E.U. Urged to Open Doors to Migrants
By Katrin Bennhold and Caroline Brothers
The New York Times, December 14, 2009
Paris — European nations are playing into the hands of human traffickers by tightening immigration policies at a time when their economies increasingly depend on migrant labor and when new factors like climate change are swelling the ranks of those eager to come, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees said Monday.
The official, Antnio Guterres, who was in Paris for a debate on the effects of global warming on migration, expressed concern about opinion polls showing a growing intolerance toward foreigners across the Continent and warned that rising unemployment would probably amplify the hostility.
He urged Western, and especially European, officials to stop what he called misleading statements to voters. 'Politicians do not have the courage to tell people that we need more migrants,' Mr. Guterres said, noting that 'if you have an aging population, a population that lacks dynamism, it is very easy to play with fear.'
'Smugglers respond to a need,' he said. 'Thats why its so difficult to fight them. If the market requires more people, they will come. If you close the door, they will climb through the window.'
From the recently dismantled encampments in Calais, in northern France, where illegal migrants awaited opportunities to cross into Britain, to the many boats full of Africans washing up on the Mediterranean coast, immigration has been a hot-button issue in Europe for some time.
As public opinion has hardened, so has legislation. Under a European Union pact on immigration signed last year, governments pledged to deport illegal immigrants from European territory and strengthen border controls. More recently, E.U. governments agreed to start penalizing employers who use workers without papers.
Migrant groups and, increasingly, corporate lobbies assert that many sectors, like construction and the restaurant business, could not operate without immigrants, who often pay taxes and social security contributions under someone elses name.
'What we need is more meaningful opportunities for legal migration,' Mr. Guterres said. In a spirited presentation at the Forum for New Diplomacy, co-hosted by the International Herald Tribune and the Academie Diplomatique Internationale, he spoke of his own experience in his native Portugal. Only two of the seven people caring for his father, who died at 95 a few months ago, were Portuguese. Without immigrants, Mr. Guterres said, Europe cannot care for its elderly.
If there is a growing demand for migrant labor in Western economies, there is also a growing supply and not just because of poverty and growing income inequalities in the world, he said.
Climate change is expected to unseat conflict as the main driver of mass migration in coming years, Mr. Guterres predicted, calling on rich nations to provide financial aid to poorer nations most affected by global warming. Even if the current climate talks in Copenhagen are successful, he said, the impact of hotter weather caused by cumulative greenhouse gas emissions already in the atmosphere is likely to increase the number and scale of phenomena displacing populations: natural disasters, food scarcity, water shortages and conflicts.
The classic distinction between economic migrants and refugees is becoming increasingly blurred, further complicating the immigration question in Western societies, Mr. Guterres said.
'At a time when more and more people are forced to move, it is more and more difficult for people to move,' he said. 'It is one of the contradictions of our times.'
But like climate change, Mr. Guterres said, mass migration is a reality that governments need to face up to.