A new pathway for immigrants

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 September, 2007, 12:00am

The European Commission is talking sense on immigration. Last week, Franco Frattini, the justice commissioner, said that Europe must relax its controls and open the door to an extra 20 million workers over the next two decades. His argument flies in the face of received political wisdom. Instead of cracking down on illegal migrants arriving overland from Asia or in small boats from Africa, Europe should build safe 'pathways' for those who are desperate to work there, he said.

This is not just talk. Mr Frattini plans to table a new law that, besides setting out minimum working standards for immigrants, will establish a one-stop shop for them to apply for work permits. Moreover, the commission is establishing an information centre in Mali, a major source of illegal emigrants. Locals can use it to apply for jobs in Spain and France. He is also promoting the concept of 'circular migration' - that migrants, whether skilled or unskilled, come to Europe for a period without their families and then return home.

Mr Frattini seems intent on puncturing some of the myths on immigration, a subject that is riddled with misinformation. Norman Podhoretz, the American neoconservative, recently predicted that Western Europe would be 'conquered from within by Islamofacism'. Yet the influx of Muslim migrants peaked long ago, and today's flood is coming from Eastern Europe.

The interesting thing about the flood of Eastern Europeans is that they want to keep their roots at home intact. And, as the Poles have shown, if there is no hassle about coming and going, they will tend to leave their families at home. So why not extend this practice to Africans and Asians?

Long ago, the US conducted an experiment in circularity. The subject was Puerto Rican immigration. Because of the island's special political status, the flood of immigrants faced no barriers. But even in the 1980s, nearly half of the immigrants stayed on the US mainland for only two years. In the 1990s, the traffic ceased of its own accord, as Puerto Rico developed rapidly.

The truth is that most migrant workers, if given a choice, usually prefer to go home once jobs open up.

Immigrants who cause the kind of problems that rattle receiving societies often act as they do because they feel trapped. But if they are free to come and go, they will have more of a tourist mentality - they'll want to learn about the country they have temporarily moved to and will have no major gripe with it. Freer movement will also undermine the evils of the black market.

Step by step, we have to move the immigration phenomenon back to where it was in the 1960s, when emigrants only decided to uproot because they knew there would be jobs at the other end. No unfilled vacancies, no migrant flows or, at least, much smaller ones. This doesn't only mean using the older members of our society better, it means often refashioning many low-paid jobs so they have more appeal for native workers - who now include many second-generation offspring of migrants.

The European Union is feeling its way, just as the US is, to a more rational policy on immigration. In the US some sensible proposals have been voted down in Congress, sabotaged by an often hysterical, poorly informed public debate. One hopes that the EU proposals don't become fodder for immigration demagogues in the same way.

Jonathan Power is a London-based journalist