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LONDON — The problem of illegal immigrants (or economic migrants) and of people seeking asylum because of persecution in their home countries have become dominant themes in the European media. Popular antipathy to the plight of these people has been exploited by rightwing parties, especially in France, Denmark and the Netherlands, but xenophobic reactions have appeared in almost every European country, including Britain. Many of the current wave of arrivals are said to be Albanians, Afghans and Kurds.

Since World War II, most European countries have absorbed large numbers of ethnically diverse immigrants. The first wave arriving in Britain came from the West Indies and formed an Afro-Caribbean community. The next wave was largely Asian, from the Indian subcontinent, and consisted of Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. To these were added Asians displaced from east Africa who had a claim to British nationality.

France took in large numbers of Muslims from Algeria and North Africa. The Netherlands accepted people, often of mixed race, from Indonesia and the former Dutch possessions in the West Indies. Germany took in large numbers of Turkish guest workers. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, European countries took in a share of Vietnamese refugees. Chinese communities in Europe have much earlier origins.

Some European countries, such as Sweden, have had a more liberal attitude toward refugees than others. Britain, in particular, benefited over the centuries from various waves of refugees such as Flemish weavers, French Protestants and Jewish groups from Spain, Portugal, Eastern Europe and Germany. These waves did not cause serious problems — not least because there was little ethnic difference between the refugees and the British population of the time.

When different races began to enter Britain after the war, it was recognized by many that Britain needed immigrants with skills or those willing to do manual labor. Moreover, unemployment rates then were low. But as the proportion of ethnically and culturally different people rose, frictions inevitably developed. As is the case in Japan, increasing crime rates are often ascribed to immigrants, while asylum seekers are accused of making bogus claims to live on social security and of depriving locals of jobs. In fact, the vast majority of immigrants work hard when allowed to settle.

Europe generally and Britain, in particular, have failed to insist on the immigrants’ integrating into local society, learning the local language and conforming to local customs. As a result, immigrants often end up in ghettos, where they speak their own languages and adhere to some customs that seem to infringe on human rights, such as forcing girls into arranged marriages.

Cases of racial discrimination have led to serious incidents, including rioting and incitement to violence. These have caused much soul-searching in Britain, and major efforts have been made to outlaw racial discrimination. Now thought is finally being given to measures to persuade immigrants to learn English and accept the British way of life.

The development of global travel facilities, global media and the Internet have highlighted the differences in standards of living and ideas of freedom between peoples in developing and developed countries. The world has been moving, if only in fits and starts, toward liberalizing trade in goods and services, but there has been no comparable progress in freeing up the movement of peoples.

It is hardly surprising that people living in poorer countries, often under rigid, corrupt or dictatorial regimes, should want to move to other countries in search of greater freedom and prosperity. Restrictions imposed on such movements have led to the development of a growing illegal trade in smuggling people across frontiers. Last year more than 20 Chinese illegal immigrants suffocated in a truck that they had boarded in Europe and that was destined for Britain.

Every day and night people, mainly men but also some women and children, try to cross the Channel into England from a camp set up near Calais in Northern France. Ships that are hardly seaworthy, that contain human cargo crowded together in unsanitary conditions, attempt to land immigrants on the shores of Italy and France.

In response to media attention and in an attempt to undermine the appeal of rightwing parties, European governments have become more strident in their demands for remedies to the problems posed by illegal immigrants and asylum seekers. The British prime minister wants the issue to be given top priority at the next European summit meeting.

Many of the measures being discussed are either impossible to implement or counterproductive. For instance, a “Fortress Europe” policy could not be implemented in view of the length of the European coastline and its land frontiers. It would also undermine attempts to enlarge the European Union to include East European states.

Another suggestion is that countries refusing to take back deportees should be deprived of aid. This, however, would further depress standards of living in the country concerned and encourage economic migration all the more. Meanwhile, to send home genuine asylum seekers to countries where they might be imprisoned, tortured or killed would be a serious abuse of human rights and contrary to international law.

The furor about illegal immigrants and asylum seekers should be seen, but rarely is, against the background that European countries with a declining birth rate will need immigrants to do jobs that Europeans are unwilling or, as they get older, unable to do. The British and the German governments appear to have become more aware of this need, but instead of making the case effectively, some ministers are letting themselves be swayed by current hysteria. Governments would be wise to concentrate on controlling the flow and integrating the immigrants rather than emulating King Canute, who unsuccessfully ordered the waves to recede.

Japan has had its problems with illegal immigrants, whose numbers have been limited, partly because of geography. In the future, Japan will not be able to insist on maintaining the myth of an ethnically homogeneous population. With the average age of the population increasing amid a declining birthrate (only Italy has a lower rate), Japan will need a flow of immigrants to maintain production and services. Japanese politicians would be wise to develop plans soon for controlled immigration. I doubt, though, that any Japanese politician will have the necessary courage and foresight to come to grips with this problem — if only because of latent Japanese xenophobia.

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