As noted yesterday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi created headlines in responding to their bilateral Tunisian dilemma with their call Tuesday for revision and restriction of the entire Schengen treaty. Reworking that 26 year-old text, they made clear, will allow member nations to once again throw up border controls in self-defense should any other countries in the zone be swamped by surges of immigrants—particularly the glut of North Africans many conservative pols and pundits are certain will soon arrive in Europe fleeing “Arab Spring” unrest in their homelands. The seemingly pragmatic move also had the not-so-secondary objective of wooing disillusioned conservative and extreme-right voters both unpopular leaders believe they must win back to stay in power.
But the nasty tone of xenophobia with which that warning-cum-seduction resonated apparently goaded Sarkozy into justifying his stand—and putting a bit of daylight between himself and his scandal-plagued host–by favorably comparing France’s humanitarian and hospitality bone fides to those of its EU partners (including Italy). Sarkozy noted France is “the European country that welcome(s) the most refugees in Europe”, and cited the figure of 52,000 asylum cases as proof. Which sounded quite impressive—so long as you don’t check the statistics or definitions. Because what the most recent numbers available show is—contrary to Sarkozy’s suggestion—France is not Europe’s haven for a growing number of refugees and immigrants (which are two separate categories, by the way). Likewise, independent data also indicates that France, Italy, and Europe as a whole successfully maintain rather tight control of the immigration flow–a fact that fans suspicions that much of the current fretting about foreign residents is really about domestic politics.
Let’s start with Sarkozy’s refugee claim. Although figures differ somewhat depending on the issuing agency, the global view remains generally the same whatever the source: while France is second only to the U.S. terms of total annual asylum petitions received, it’s by no means the European leader in the number of refugees accepted. In fact, France lags behind other EU nations in both global and proportional numbers (a rather significant fact, given Sarkozy’s misleading boasting to the contrary). According to Eurostat figures, France granted asylum to 10,415 of the 54,840 applicants in 2009—a 19% approval rate dwarfed by the 36% level in Germany (which accepted 12,055 of 33,505 applicants); 28% in the UK (12,510 accepted out of 44,890); 47% in the Netherlands, and 37% in Berlusconi’s Italy. That’s right, Italy actually out-performs France proportionally in granting asylum, Sarkozy’s press conference moralizing notwithstanding. France does okay by refugees—in the EU’s top half—but it’s far from the most generous country within a decreasing volume of asylum requests.
Because as ImmigrationProf Blog notes in outlining the UNHCR’s 2010 report on asylum activity, “the 27 Member States of the European Union registered 235,900 asylum claims in 2010, a 5 per cent decrease compared to 2009”. ImmigrationProf adds “the largest relative decrease in annual asylum levels was reported by the eight Southern European countries”. To be fair, those statistics wouldn’t reflect the flight of people from North African uprisings towards Europe over the past five months. Yet there’s more than a little debate over whether many of those individuals qualify (or are even applying) for refugee status, which typically requires proof of persecution. But even if all 25,000 Tunisian migrants that were given Italian residency visas were classified as refugees, that still wouldn’t negate the wider trend of decreasing numbers of non-Europeans seeking refuge in EU countries. Meaning, neither Sarkozy nor Berlusconi could credibly cite that activity in demanding a tightening of Schengen texts now (though props to Sarkozy for trying to find a way to make figures hostile to his argument become part of his defense anyway).
Immigration, of course, is a separate matter—though there’s also evidence both Sarkozy and Berlusconi are responding to (and hyping) that, too, as a perceived problem rather than an urgent one. Though available numbers are vexingly old, the most recent statistical analysis by Eurostat states “immigration to EU Member States is estimated to have decreased by 6 %” in 2008. The largest inflows were reported by “Spain (726 000), followed by Germany (682 000), the United Kingdom (590 000) and Italy (535 000)”. Yet Eurostat also notes “these figures…include international flows within the EU–between different Member States. Just over half of the total immigrants to EU Member States, in other words 1.9 million people, were previously residing outside the EU.”
Meaning the largest population within the EU’s supposed immigration plague are other Europeans, not the Asians and Africans usually targeted as the root of the much-lamented problem. With 3.8 million people legally migrating into EU in 2008 (only 47% from outside Europe), the 25,000 Tunisians stranded in Italy—representing thus far the totality of the “human tsunami” of “Arab Spring” immigrants conservatives warn of—are scarcely a drop in the demographic bucket. Close attention to exactly which EU nations non-European immigrants are primarily settling down in also makes it clear the countries now screaming loudest about the horrors of immigration aren’t the ones most affected by it any more.
Critics can legitimately note things have evolved since 2008 that may justify anti-immigration sentiment rising in certain European nations—notably Italy and France. Most of that change appears to be mental, however—encouraged by political leaders who see potential electoral gains to be made from playing on public perceptions of surging immigration. A recent report by France’s National Institute of Demographic Studies uses the most recent data available to estimate immigration populations of nations around the world at the end of 2010. It ranks France and its 6.7 million immigrants sixth among all countries, far behind the leader U.S. (42 million), Russia (12.3 million), Germany (10.8 million), Saudi Arabia (7.3 million) and Canada (7.2 million). France finishes just ahead of the UK (6.5 million) and Spain (6.4 million); Italy isn’t even among the top 15. Meanwhile, France’s 6.7 million immigrants—including newcomers from North American and Europe—represents just 10.7% of the entire population, compared to 13.5% in the U.S., 13.1% in Germany, 14.1% in Spain, 21.3% in Canada and Australia, and 23.2% in Switzerland. By and large, the nations showing the most hostile attitudes towards immigration these days aren’t ones with the largest foreign populations–something particularly true in Europe.
The point here not to suggest immigration isn’t a concern, and that people worried about it are simply deluded cranks or evil xenophobes. The fact that people—and there are lots of them—are genuinely worried that immigration has gotten out of control and is having seriously negative affects on society means the topic should be debated, aired out, and settled in a manner best for everyone. But that can only happen by the facts reflecting the reality of immigration being presented honestly, not by politicians cynically manipulating figures—and placing elementary collective treaties in peril—in what they believe will produce short-term electoral gain by playing to what may well be unfounded fears.