Europe rethinks its 'safe haven' status

Ayaan Hirsi Ali's departure from Dutch politics last week played off fears about 'bogus' asylum seekers.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

The night air in Vienna has finally turned warm, filling the city's trams with visitors. On the Ringstrasse, tourists take in the city, pointing out the City Hall and the parliament.

"Did you see that one girl - so young! And wearing a veil," a woman clucks in lightly accented English, staring out the window of tram D. "They will form a separate culture."

The sentiment isn't isolated. Earlier this month, Austria's Interior Minister Liese Prokop announced that 45 percent of Muslim immigrants were "unintegratable," and suggested that those people should "choose another country."

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In the Netherlands, one of Europe's most integrated refugees and a critic of radical Islam, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, resigned her seat in parliament in the wake of criticism that she faked details on her asylum application to the Netherlands in 1992. And France's lower house of parliament last week passed a strict new immigration law, now awaiting Senate approval.

Indeed, recent rumblings from the top echelons of governments across Europe suggest that the continent is rethinking its once-vaunted status as a haven for refugees as it becomes more suspicious that many immigrants are coming to exploit its social benefits and democratic principles.

"The trend today more and more in Europe is to try to control immigration flow," says Philippe De Bruycker, founder of the Odysseus Network, an academic consortium on immigration and asylum in Europe. "At the same time we still say we want to respect the right of asylum and the possibility of applying for asylum. But of course along the way we create obstacles for asylum seekers," he acknowledges.

A day after Ms. Prokop made her controversial statement on May 15, Ms. Hirsi Ali - a Somalian immigrant elected to parliament in 2003 - was informed by her own political party that her Dutch citizenship was in question. Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk, a former prison warden dubbed "Iron Rita" who has long promised a tough stance on immigration, said "the preliminary assumption must be that - in line with case law of the Dutch Supreme Court - [Hirsi Ali] is considered not to have obtained Dutch nationality."

At issue were inconsistencies in Hirsi Ali's application for asylum in 1992 - giving a false name and age, and saying she was fleeing from Somalia's civil war, not a forced marriage. Though she had publically admitted to the falsities in 2002, a recent TV documentary heightened public scrutiny of the controversial parliamentarian, who has been under 24-hour protection from death threats since the murder of Theo Van Gogh, the director of a film she wrote. Hirsi Ali's case, heatedly debated across Europe in the days since Ms. Verdonk's announcement, was seen as particularly ironic. But it also highlights the dramatic change in Europe since the turn of this century.

In the years following the World War II, a chagrined US and Europe vowed to follow the Geneva Conventions and create safe havens for refugees. Yet such lofty ideals were hard to uphold after massive influxes of workers in the 1960s and early 1970s were halted during an economic downturn.

Those immigrant populations - often Muslims from North Africa and the Middle East - swelled with family reunification, yet often remained economically and socially distinct from the societies that had adopted. The image of the immigrant began to change, and distinctions between those who came for work and those who came for safety began to blur.

Now "asylum seekers are viewed as potential cheaters," says Jean-Pierre Cassarino, scientific coordinator for the Return Migration to the Maghreb (MIRAM), hosted by the Robert Schuman Center for Advanced Studies in Florence, Italy. [Editor's note: The original version misidentified Dr. Cassarino's affiliation.]

Today, in once-homogenous Europe, tensions between immigrants and native Europeans appear to be increasing. The perception that an ever increasing number of newcomers - who neither speak the language of their adopted country nor accept its cultural mores - are changing the culture has increased support for ideas once only advanced by far-right political parties.

"France, Austria, and the Netherlands all have had very significant electoral success of the far-right parties," says Michael Collyer, a research fellow in European migration policy at the University of Sussex.

Collier points to the success in France - also this past week - of a strict new immigration law proposed by Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. Mr. Sarkozy's proposal would institutionalize "selective" immigration, giving an advantage to privileged immigrants of better economic and education status who are more "integratable."

It would also change the rights of family reunification for workers already in the country; speed up the expulsion of undocumented immigrants who are discovered or whose applications for asylum are rejected; lengthen the amount of time it takes to apply for permanent residency status for married couples; and toughen visa requirements. Most controversial, Sarkozy announced deportations for undocumented immigrant school children.

"We speak of the need to fight immigration but we don't have a clear position on whether we need immigrants," says Mr. De Bruycker, noting the precipitous dip in population growth in European Union countries in the last half century. He adds that a series of recent incidents have affected the image of immigrants in the European mind. The murder of a Jewish man - Ilan Halimi - on the outskirts of Paris earlier this spring, for example, by a band of immigrant youths. Or the murder of a Malian woman and a Flemish child in Antwerp last week by the son of a founder of Belgium's most far-right party.

"In Europe, we are still unable to accept that we are a continent of immigration," says De Bruycker.

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