A north-south migration dilemma

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Over the last decade, immigration from southern Mediterranean countries has become a mayor challenge for policymakers in the European Union and its member states. This is due primarily to cultural and social differences.

According to the most recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development annual report on Tendaces des Migrations Internationale, since the second half of the 1990s migration flows continue to grow, despite economic deterioration. A slight stagnation of international flows can be observed during 2002. For the long term it seems very difficult to assess the effect of the economic situation on migration flows.

The 1973 oil crisis can be considered a migration watershed. Before the crisis, migration flows were explained as a response to fluctuations in business cycles. As a consequence of the crisis, this relationship no longer works. One reason may be that the liberalization of world trade increased competition between industrialized countries. Higher interest rates as well as the restructuring of the global labor market in the 1980s led to growing unemployment rates and an increasing demand for qualified labor forces. Simultaneously, the limits of the welfare state became more and more evident. These changes in the labor demand and labor environment reduced the demand for migrant workers. Meanwhile new social conflicts emerged between immigrants and nationals, particularly in France. Indeed, a profound transformation of hosting countries’ societies can be observed through the existence of immigrants.

If we compare the age structures of both shores of the Mediterranean basin, a complementary demographic relationship can be identified. In southern Mediterranean countries the societies are characterized by a very young age structure (about a third of the total population is younger than 15 years), while in the northern part we find an increasingly “aging” population (about 18 percent of the total population is older than 65 years). Population growth rates affirm the continuation of this trend. Demographic growth in Europe is nearly at a standstill, while the growth rates in North Africa range between 1.09 and 2.39 per annum in Tunisia and Libya, respectively.

If we now take a closer look at the relationship between the demands of European labor markets and immigration, it seems that the linkage between economic security and migration–the perceived threat of competition with nationals of host countries in the labor market–is now rejected by a recently published opinion poll carried out by Eurobarometer. According to this survey, 56 percent of the Europeans interviewed agreed with the affirmation that we need immigrants to work in some sectors of the economy.

The breakdown by socio-demographic factors shows that education strongly influences these opinions. Highly educated Europeans tend to agree more than Europeans with lower educational levels, who presumably perceive immigrants as more direct competition in the labor market due to the economic sectors where immigrants usually are employed. As the survey stresses, self-employed persons are more likely to respond positively to a question about the necessity of immigrants in the labor market than for example manual workers. It is necessary to underline that these are perceptions; other studies have shown that most immigrants are doing jobs nationals often are unwilling to accept.

The distribution of economic sectors where immigrants are employed varies considerably. This is also due to the different economic structures of the host countries. If we compare for example Germany and Spain, it is quite obvious that in Spain there are far more immigrants working in agriculture and tourism than in Germany, and in turn, the majority of immigrants in Germany work in the manufacturing industries.

This recent survey does not break down the immigrants by their countries of origin. Herein lies an important point concerning immigration flows from the southern Mediterranean Arab states and the issue of racism and xenophobia towards them. Another Eurobarometer opinion poll from 1997- -stereotypes and attitudes can be assumed to change very slowly–reveals that nearly 33 percent of Europeans openly described themselves as “quite racist” or “very racist”. Particularly after 9/11, these attitudes are above all addressed towards the Muslim communities living in Europe, due to their different appearance and cultural behavior. The case of Spain clearly shows this: Moroccans are at the bottom of the list of sympathy towards foreigners living there. The March 11 Madrid terrorist attacks and the link to Islamic terrorists from Morocco probably will increase hostile attitudes in Spanish society towards the Moroccan minority living in the country. In the aftermath of the bombing some Spanish media reported xenophobic attacks; more and more Moroccans in Spain expressed their increasing fear of suffering such attacks.

We need to improve our policies and strategies of integration of immigrant minorities into our societies. These policies should be based on non-discrimination, the right to express cultural identity, and no marginalization. Concerning the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, a cultural dialogue in order to learn about each other is more necessary than ever.

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