It is estimated that approximately ten million Italians left their country between 1860 and 1950 to gamble on a better life in another hemisphere. They were not the only ones: other communities of Spaniards, Germans, French and Irish decided to look somewhere else to shun unemployment and hardship. Massive flows of people, prevalently of the working classes, found a new home; the majority gradually integrated to the host societies of the Americas, others eventually returned to Europe.
Those times are no longer part of the collective memory of a continent which seems to have chosen a trajectory in open contrast with the humanist ideals enshrined in the Enlightenment heritage, which had historically characterised its political imprint. The European Union is adopting a new course in all directions, and immigration provides no exception to the general rule. We should not be too naive in believing that Europe had always strictly followed that road, and that its countries have always been inspired by a boundless largess. By and large, however, Europe was seen with some justification as the place where the respect for the individual had gone beyond the hypocritical and narrow liberal notion to give way to a more extended concept of citizenship, where a range of rights and entitlements found real significance in day-to-day praxis.
Little by little, these rights are being dismantled in all spheres of human life, from labour to immigration, this shift constituting a wrong answer to the global turbulence caused by global competition and the reassertion of the prominence of capital over other paradigms. In other words, it is thought that only by approximating to the US-model can Europe avoid the economic crisis and defend itself against the challenges raised by the global economy. People are unable to think of a different way out, conquered by the hegemonic culture of the right, sometimes camouflaged as a ‘responsible’ centre-left, and find it easier to blame local immigrant communities for the economic problems, rather than reflecting on wage freezes and labour flexibility.
It is in this context that the European Union has deemed it important to give an answer to what is increasingly perceived as an urgent and sensitive question. If excessive immigration can in fact be detrimental in terms of salaries level and has undeniably carried certain problems, the approach which is now becoming dominant among policy makers and the population is one dictated by fear and revulsion. The recent norm approved by the Christian-Democrat-dominated European Parliament on 18th June adds fuel to fire. The policy provides for the setting of a number of procedures to be applied with regard to the process of expulsion of the illegal immigrant. The new law establishes that the immigrant who is to be deported is firstly conceded a voluntary departure period, limited between seven and thirty days. It is important to note here that a significant number of illegal immigrants are often unable to undertake the return to their home country given to sheer economic impossibility, a fact which makes this first option, in many cases, at best misguided. Moreover, the illegal immigrant is already aware that her/his presence in Europe is no longer permitted. This window period starts when the immigrant is ‘intercepted’ and identified by authorities. The fear of many people is that proper waves of ‘immigrants hunting’ will be conducted to remove the 8 million illegal immigrants that currently reside in Europe.
However, the most polemic norm is concerned with the treatment that the illegal immigrant can receive in case she/he ignores the ‘invitation’ to leave. A six-month detention period, which can be extended to 12, with a possible maximum duration of the custody of 18 months, is introduced. Moreover, children, together with their families, can also be held in custody for the same period, and eventually sent back to their home country, even to “adequate reception facilities” in case no family member would be present. On the top of that, expelled people will not be allowed back in at any point in the next five years. This represents a complete affront to human rights. Millions of people who have been forced to move from their lands because of hunger, persecution, and poverty are now running the risk of being gaoled for trying to look for a better future. Giusto Catania, European MP of the leftist GUE/NGL group, has rightly stated that Europe had “written one of the darkest pages of its history and can no longer be considered the cradle of human rights”.
The new policy has been presented by its proponents as a humanitarian and decisive step to regulate immigration. They think that the right to appeal and the access to free legal services, still respected by this law, are the best guarantees of fair treatment. Moreover, they believe that voluntary return is being favoured as opposed to the forced one. But they ignore the fact that the majority of illegal immigrants still prefer the humble and almost second-class life on offer in Europe to the misery that awaits many of them in the country of origin. Meanwhile the much-vaunted right of appeal, which leads to a rejection in the great majority of cases, provides merely an illusion of a fair, respectable process. Instead of trying to regularise and give a decent existence to millions of people who fear a simple cold for the consequences it could have on their existence, the generous European legislators gently encourage these people to go away, criminalising them if they do otherwise, because after being exploited and mistreated as irregular workers, the enlightened Europe has realised they are too many and their presence is bothering. But what is even more staggering is the prospect for these immigrants: without committing a single crime, they can be detained in dreadful temporary detention camps which, as we have already seen in many cases, lack any adequate infrastructure and do not respect any basic norms of human treatment.
The new rules have been met with a clear and harsh response from developing countries, the major ‘exporters’ of migrants. Latin America in particular has shown its utmost indignation before the ‘return’ directive, and this preoccupation has mixed with recent episodes of racism and intolerance, especially in Italy, where a national anti-migrants policy is in the making and the rhetoric of the new government and much of the media is creating a dangerous climate of suspicion and diffidence towards foreigners. Venezuela’s President Hugo ChÃ¡vez has been the first to respond, by threatening to halt crude shipments to those countries which will apply the new measures, whereas Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa has been talking about the cessation of trade negotiations with complying countries, and envisaging the creation of a united front to fight the initiative. Evo Morales has implicitly talked about the adoption of retaliation measures. Surprise and outrage have also been the dominant sentiments expressed by the authorities of other countries, whose governments have traditionally been less radical: Peru, Uruguay, Brasil have all condemned EU’s resolution.
It is time for the European right, and for those on the left who are swiftly moving towards these positions, to start reflecting on how these policies run the risk of exacerbating conflicts and resentments at an international level. These chauvenistic attitudes are creating risky tensions, and are making the image of Europe ever more feeble in the developing world. It comes as no surprise that Europe is increasingly considered as an imperialist bloc, with little differentiation from the US, and that the image of its progressive and humane continent is rapidly fading away.
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This post was written by Samuele Mazzolini