There have been frequent reports that people attempting to cross from North Africa to Europe have drowned when their overloaded and unseaworthy craft foundered. Australia also attracts people from the Middle East and elsewhere and numbers die in attempting to cross tropical waters north of Australia.

These would-be migrants need to be desperate or foolhardy to risk their lives in this way and to consign to often fraudulent and almost invariably unscrupulous agents their lives and such limited worldly goods as they have managed to bring with them.

Our sympathies have become hardened by accounts of the way in which human rights, especially but by no means exclusively in developing countries, have been so frequently violated. Our sympathies are also often blinded by fears that immigration may deprive us of jobs and cause social disruption.

European institutions are well aware of the problems faced especially by Italy in coping with the flood of boat people mainly through Libya but originating in Syria, Somalia and other Middle Eastern trouble spots. Some migrants are undoubtedly political refugees, who should be granted asylum, but many are economic migrants who have been led to believe that in Europe and Australia living conditions are better than in their home countries and that they will be able to find employment. This is only partly true. Opposition to immigration especially from poorer countries has been growing quickly in the destinations favoured by migrants.

The problems posed by migration of peoples are not new. The ancient world under Roman dominion was eventually overpowered by waves of different Northern and Eastern tribes. There were similar waves in pre-modern times in the Middle East and Asia. Jewish people who suffered through the Holocaust as a result of the Nazis in Germany and had to live through persecution and pogroms in European countries in earlier times moved to Israel displacing Arabs, some of whom had lived in Palestine for centuries.

In the 1970s the communist regime in Vietnam caused such misery that many tens of thousands tried to escape by sea. Vietnamese boat people often had to be rescued at sea, but most ports refused them and large numbers were forced to exist for years in closed camps in Hong Kong.

The civil wars in Syria and Somalia have been a major cause of the rising number of migrants, but the discrepancy in living standards between developing and developed countries has also been a major factor. Living standards include access to good educational facilities and health care.

Compassion for the unfortunate is a key virtue in most of the world’s religions. It is also an important component of humanist ethics. Unfortunately it is frequently forgotten in the belief that “charity begins at home.” This is used by many to justify their opposition to immigration and is reinforced by allegations that immigrants take jobs from locals or are trying to get benefits from the welfare state at the expense of taxpayers.

Many of the allegations against immigrants are exaggerated or based on prejudice, but they are widely believed. In Britain seasonal jobs, which only command the minimum wage as set by law, such as picking fruit and vegetables, tend to be shunned by young British people seeking longer-term jobs. The hospitality industry, including hotel and restaurant staff where hours are irregular or unsocial, find immigrants more willing than locals.

The British government in a sop to prejudices against immigrants are investigating how to prevent “benefits tourism” and make migrants pay for health care. It is unlikely that much will be gained as a result of much bureaucratic effort and aggravation for all concerned.

Anti-immigrant parties are on the rise throughout Western Europe. Scandinavian countries are no longer the most liberal in their attitudes toward immigrants.

The right to freedom of movement within the Union, which is enshrined in the treaties, complicates the position in EU countries. Until membership of the union was extended to central and eastern European countries there was no real problem, as standards of living and job opportunities in the original members were fairly similar.

But when Poland, which has a large and relatively skilled population, but a lower standard of living as a result of communist maladministration, joined the EU, many Poles sought work in Western European countries. They proved on the whole good workers and the “Polish plumber” became a Western phenomenon.

The admission to the EU of Romania and Bulgaria has added significantly to the problem. There is a relatively large number of people of Roma origin (gypsies) in both countries. The Roma have suffered discrimination over the centuries and have not achieved levels of education on the level of fellow Romanians and Bulgarians.

The problems caused by a minority of immigrants from these two countries into Western Europe have added to anti-immigrant sentiment, now a significant political factor in all European countries.

Unfortunately in response to these pressures, European governments have taken illiberal measures, such as over-admission of students and key workers, that are counterproductive and often damaging to the national interest.

There are no easy answers to any of these problems, but there clearly needs to be a much wider debate about migration and population distribution in a world where population imbalance is growing. Some countries in Western Europe, as well as Japan, suffer from an ageing and declining indigenous population. Other countries in the developing world for the present have a surplus of young people.

In times of austerity it is inevitable that there will be opposition to aid to developing countries, but it is very much in the interests of the developed world that the economies of developing countries should grow. Apart from increasing world prosperity through trade and investment flows, aid can reduce migration pressures.

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.

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