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21st Mar 2019

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UN calls for EU 'courage' on immigration

  • Refugee camp on Jordan-Syria border: there are more displaced people in the world today than at any time since WWII (Photo: EUobserver)

The UN special envoy on migration has urged EU leaders to show more “courage” in the face of growing “nationalism” in Europe.

Peter Sutherland, who was also Ireland’s EU commissioner in the 1980s, told EUobserver from New York on Wednesday (27 May) that European politics is stuck in a vicious circle.

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“What doesn’t help is that arguments in favour of migration aren’t being articulated because politicians are fearful of being labelled ‘pro-immigrant’,” he said.

“It’s a circular situation, where you get more and more anti-immigrant feeling based on wrong information”, he added.

“There’s no question that anti-immigrant parties are gaining support. But does that mean you surrender your beliefs and your principles? People who disagree with this [nationalist rhetoric] should show more courage and should fight for their values in their own constituencies”.

Sutherland spoke amid a backlash by several EU states - including France, Poland, and the UK - against European Commission proposals to share the burden of asylum seekers and refugees.

Their reaction comes amid the rise, in recent years, of anti-immigrant parties such as Ukip in Britain or the National Front in France.

“I don’t want to point fingers, but some are doing better than others”, the UN envoy noted.

He said Germany and Sweden are positive models of countries which take in large numbers of refugees and which make the case for immigration.

Both of them have witnessed popular resentment.

The Sweden Democrats, a Ukip-type party, won 13 percent of votes in the last election. In Germany, which also hosts the EU’s largest Turkish community, the anti-Muslim Pegida movement holds regular torch-lit rallies.

But Sutherland said their leaders “still have appetite” to bring in more foreigners.

“They welcome people and try to make them part and parcel of society”.

He also praised commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and his right-hand man, Dutch commissioner Frans Timmermans, for confronting national taboos.

“They’ve taken a bold step forward, which deserves credit”, he said.

Economic argument

Sutherland, a former businessman, said the economic argument in favour of immigration is an open and shut case.

“It’s proven over and over that migrants’ contribution to tax income far exceeds the cost of welfare benefits”.

“The economic capacity of migrants tends to be greater than that of the native population, unemployment rates are lower, but these figures are rarely discussed.”

Sutherland also held up the US as a model of a “new society” which absorbs migrants “without feeling an absence, a loss of its own culture”.

For his part, John Skrentny, a scholar of migration at the University of California at San Diego, recently told EUobserver that it’s dangerous to dismiss popular concerns.

He said the Western elite has “cosmopolitan values” but most of society “isn’t like that”.

“It’s easy to dismiss people as racists … [but] they feel powerless when they’re told they’re xenophobes. That’s what creates far-right votes”.

Age-old problem

Sutherland had little sympathy for the Ukip-type point of view.

He said that “at the end of the day, it [anti-immigrant discourse] is just the age-old problem of nationalism”.

Citing George Orwell, the British novelist and left-wing polemicist, he added: “Orwell said that nationalism just means thinking that you’re better than other people”.

“These are not the kind of values which underpin the European Union or the United Nations”.

Lampedusa in the Alps

In the last few days, migrants have been forced off trains and stranded near the Italian-Austrian border in a situation dubbed ”Lampedusa in the Alps”.

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