It has been dubbed the ``get-lost bonus'' by immigrants. But for an increasing number of West European governments it has become a necessary evil in hard times. Earlier this month, Belgium and the Netherlands became the latest countries to offer such a bonus: They decided to pay generous cash settlements to jobless immigrant workers who agreed to return home.
Only about 25,000 foreign workers will be eligible for the grants, yet analysts here say the plan underscores the extremes to which many countries on this side of the Atlantic are going to fight record high unemployment (now at 12 percent).
At the same time, political leaders across Western Europe have begun to speak out with increasing force against what French President Franois Mitterrand recently called -- in his strongest statement to date on the subject -- the ``bloodstain'' of racism. He reminded the French people that immigrant workers have made an enormous contribution to the intellectual and economic development of the country since the 19th century.
Immigrant workers living in France, most of them from North Africa, have become targets in recent months of a racist campaign led by the rightist political party of Jean-Marie Le Pen. His party, the National Front, captured 11 percent of the vote in last year's elections for the European Parliament. Party members have blamed foreign workers for France's high employment and other social ills.
In late February, the European Community stepped into the highly charged atmosphere of immigrant policy with a series of proposals aimed at improving conditions for foreign workers, who, together with their families, total some 12 million (roughly 4.5 percent of the EC's population). These included updating social legislation, securing political rights for immigrants (including the right to vote and stand for office), and recognizing the professional qualifications of non-European workers throughout the EC.
``One of our primary purposes is to combat the overtly xenophobic and indeed racist reaction to the problem of immigration,'' said EC Social Affairs Commissioner Peter Sutherland. High unemployment and the ``changed economic and social situation'' have tended to lead to an increase in discrimination, racism, and xenophobia aimed at certain sectors of the immigrant population, he said.
Yet governments have continued to employ the ``get-lost bonus'' as a means of encouraging some of the 1.9 million Turks, 820,000 Algerians, 750,000 Yugoslavs, 660,000 Moroccans, and 220,000 Tunisians and other immigrants to return home even though some sociologists suggest this may only promote the kind of xenophobia EC that commissioner Sutherland warned against.
West Germany and France were the first countries to use the tactic. According to official statistics, the Bonn government's ``get lost'' policy has resulted in the repatriation of about 300,000 immigrants so far, but in France the scheme has found few takers.
The new Dutch plan would earmark, subject to parliament's pproval, about $20 million of government money to help jobless immigrants, mainly Surinamese and Turks, to emigrate. About 3,200 eligible immigrants over age 55 would retain their social security benefits if they agreed to return home, while those under 55 (about 7,600) would receive travel and moving costs from the government, plus financial support for three months.
Under the Belgian plan, immigrant workers (chiefly North Africans and Turks) will be given up to $5,000 each for resettling outside the EC. About 15,000 people will be eligible to receive money under the plan. One criterion of eligibility is that a worker be unemployed for more than a year.
Critics argue that this will not be enough to make a significant dent in the country's unemployment rate, which at 14.1 percent is one of the highest in Western Europe.
A major study released in London last week revealed that even without ``get-lost bonuses,'' more than 1 million immigrant workers have been forced to leave Western Europe over the past decade because of the deepening economic recession.
The fall -- from a peak of about 6 million immigrants employed in 1974 to about 5 million today -- has been most marked in West Germany, Switzerland, France, and Britain. These are the very countries that attracted the largest number of immigrant workers in the boom years of the 1960s, according to the study entitled ``Migrant Workers in Western Europe,'' which is published by the Center for Contemporary Studies.