The European Union, concerned increasingly about the rising anti-immigrant sentiment among its member states, has agreed to launch a joint program to curb the influx of illegal immigrants from third countries. That is one of the most significant results of the two-day EU summit meeting held late last month in Seville, Spain.

The success of that program will depend largely on cooperation by the countries of origin, including those that share borders with EU member states. To work out concrete measures, the 15-nation bloc is planning to hold talks with those countries. Visa procedures and border patrols are high on the agenda.

Equally important, the EU is moving to set common ground rules for accepting refugees who deserve humanitarian treatment, including unified standards for temporary housing. Joint initiatives along these lines are considered urgently necessary because individual EU states are now taking different policies toward immigrants.

History shows that immigration has not been a bane so much as a boon to host countries. That is especially true about the millions of young workers who have migrated from poorer to richer countries. Europe, like the United States, has greatly benefited, economically and culturally, from immigration. In particular, European nations have been positive about accepting bona fide refugees, such as those seeking political asylum.

The end of the Cold War, however, created a new breed of immigrants: people crossing borders illegally in search of material affluence, rather than political freedom. With some 500,000 men and women sneaking into the EU annually, their total in the bloc is swelling to an estimated 3 million.

This is happening at a time when the EU, like Japan, is witnessing a steady rise in the elderly population. In an effort to maintain a vigorous society, Germany and other member states have been relying increasingly on migrant workers. Private industry has actively hired such foreign labor with the government’s blessing. Now, however, the long-held virtue of immigration appears to be losing its appeal, this at a time when the EU is preparing to embrace new members, including former communist states of eastern Europe. For better or worse, the EU’s “success” is attracting, like a powerful magnet, people as well as goods and money from outside the bloc.

Many EU citizens, while realizing the necessity of immigration, are said to resent the growing presence of foreigners in their midst. The reasons are as emotional as they are practical. While immigrants are perceived to be the odd man out, reluctant to blend into the host society, they are also seen as a drag on the dwindling resources essential to public welfare.

Radical rightwing forces are tapping into this growing anti-immigration sentiment. In countries such as Austria, Italy, Denmark, Portugal and the Netherlands, the political pendulum has been shifting away from leftist coalitions and to conservative administrations including far-right groups. As a result, a range of tough immigration measures — including cuts in welfare relief, fingerprint registration requirements and mandatory language education — are coming into force in Germany and other nations.

The EU action program rightly rules out xenophobic responses. In reality, though, it will be no easy task to strike a practical balance between the two human rights imperatives of securing citizens’ safety and ensuring free choice of residence. The task will be even more difficult in an integrated group of nations like the EU.

The perception of immigration varies among the member states. Nations on the front lines of the immigrant flow — Italy, Spain, Australia and Germany — are particularly sensitive. Britain is concerned about immigration via third countries. France is reluctant to take tough measures against Morocco and Algeria, two former French colonies.

So the member states are trying to “share the pain” by splitting the cost and labor required for immigration measures. The EU is also planning a two-pronged approach combining the “stick and carrot” — possible sanctions against non-EU countries that do not cooperate in immigration control, and financial assistance to those that do.

The EU’s effort to defuse its immigration crisis provides food for thought in Asia, which faces a refugee problem of its own: the massive exodus of North Korean defectors seeking asylum in South Korea via foreign missions in China. Japan, which has not been positive about accepting refugees, cannot and should not watch from the sidelines. The time may not be far away when droves of immigrants flock to East Asia as well, looking for a better life in this prosperous region.

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