By Gonzalo Toca
There are two conflicting views in the heart of Europe on the integration of foreigners and both of them affect Muslim immigrants in very different ways. The new policies will depend on which one of these prevails in the end.
Immigration law is not born in a vacuum nor is it built on a road paved with good or bad intentions. That is up to the pundits. Actually, its configuration is concerned essentially with the answer we give to the following questions: Should legal treatment for immigrants be the same as for nationals? Can they be required to know and accept certain values in the host country society – or simply to know and obey the laws?
Two great schools of thought start from completely different responses to these questions and, consequently, propose very different recipes on how integration should be handled. The first, more aligned with Nordic countries like Sweden, believes that foreigners who have their papers in order may simply obey the law, without any need to share the core values of their new societies – and must, as soon as is practically possible, be given the same rights and guarantees as nationals of the host country, with temporary exceptions such as participation in the general elections.
Detractors of this view point out that this approach facilitates the abuse of public services by foreigners; that excessive state benefits have the effect of immigrants refusing to accept low wage jobs –the only ones they are really qualified for, very often– ; that the neediest in the host countries may feel discriminated against, in comparison with people who, unlike them, have not paid state taxes for decades and which fund the aid they need; and finally, that the coffers of developed countries are so burdened by debt that they cannot cope with an increase in these potentially massive costs.
Moreover, they say, if someone wants to live in another society, they must accept as their own the core values of the host society that receives them. They also highlight the equal rights for women and men within their own group, or the respect for minorities, and for same sex couples. This particularly affects especially conservative Muslim immigrants and refugees.
The second school of thought and its opponents
The second school comes more from the Swiss model and the English-speaking cultures and takes it that immigrants should not have access in the short term to the same rights as nationals and, especially, to the enjoyment of key public services, such as health and unemployment benefit. At the same time, those who share this vision understand that those who choose to emigrate, provided that the reason for this is war or extreme violence, must be willing to embrace not only the laws but also the core values of the countries they will live in. In short, many Muslim immigrants should give up some of their deepest beliefs before crossing the border.
Opponents of this view claim that this could cause great injustices and, ultimately, harm the rapid integration of foreigners it supposedly pursues. Among the injustices, they would highlight, in their view, the fact that an immigrant may be paying social security while not receiving benefits; that many do not have sufficient funds to finance private health insurance; and it is dangerous – even inhumane – to deny someone adequate medical coverage for the type of diseases they might contract or spread (here they point, as evidence, to the case of unvaccinated children who have actually died of curable diseases and those who the virus was transmitted to).
As for the values that must be taken on board by those who decide to live in another society, opponents tend to remember that many nationals, in private, do not accept these alleged fundamental principles and, despite everything, their freedom of conscience is recognised, i.e. the right to think differently from the social conventions of the majority (rejecting, for example, gay marriages or any form of abortion), provided that they obey the law. They fail to understand why this should not be the same for immigrants in general and for Muslims in particular. In addition, they warn, it must be recalled that it is not clear what these basic values to be imposed are, nor whether the barriers to accessing public services on an equal footing with nationals has ceased to be a great source of conflict and obstacle to the integration of foreigners.
Elena Sánchez Montijano, researcher at CIDOB, a think tank, would represent roughly the first school of thought, which believes that legal immigrants must access the same rights and obligations as citizens of the host country as quickly as possible.
Along with her team, this researcher has built up a ranking for states, according to their degree of compliance with these principles and others she considers essential.
For Sánchez Montijano, an ideal system “should ensure access for immigrants to citizenship if they have lived five years in a member state; they should not be required to renounce their original nationality; and in the examination they must sit before obtaining nationality, they should not be forced to share the values of the host societies, but be aware of and willing to obey its laws”. The children born in the host countries, she adds, should be able to become citizens when they have completed one year of residence at the most.
This Cidob researcher also draws attention to the restrictions on access to residence and family reunification. In both cases, she warns, “they are requested to have a minimal budget which they do not always have, and a level of language that may be excessive”. Officials have, she says, a considerable margin for accepting or rejecting at the same time very similar requests and “family reunification rates are very high for a group that has, in general, very few resources”.
Elena believes that also important are aspects such as political involvement, health, education and the labour market. She believes that “they should be able to organise themselves politically in associations and parties; have an effective advisory body to liaise with the authorities; and after three years of residence, as in Norway, they should also be able to vote in local elections”. They would also have, she says, unrestricted “access to public health and education where their professionals would receive training in languages and multiculturalism”.
Immigrants, she clarifies, should have “mechanisms for reporting any discrimination” regarding their origin, culture or religion, and benefit from “fast recognition of studies, free training to be able to work in specific sectors, job search services, opportunities to apply for jobs in the public sector, and the right to create their own companies”.
Panu Poutvaraa, director of the IFO Centre for Institutional Comparisons and Immigration Research, and lecturer at the University of Munich, is very much an example of the second school. For him, “the four most important elements of a good system of integration are a welfare state that is not too generous; a vibrant labour market where immigrants can easily find a job; their command of the local language; and respect for the basic cultural values of the country that receives them”.
Poutvaraa proposes a new type of visa which would consist of providing “residence or work permits, both temporary, but without being able to access the benefits of the welfare state.” This visa would allow them “all the rights and guarantees enjoyed by a national worker, although they should pay for their health coverage and not have access to social benefits”.
Moreover, he adds, foreigners “should send over money in advance, as a guarantee, that would be given back to them on returning to their countries of origin, provided they have obeyed the laws of the host country”.
This Munich University lecturer believes that both to access this type of visa and be given residence or obtain citizenship, immigrants must not only pass an examination where they would accept the essential values of the host country, but must also accept immediate deportation if, after passing it, they commit offences that demonstrate that there really do not accept those values.
He recognises that there is an exception to his system: that of refugees and political asylum seekers who come from countries which they cannot be deported to without putting their lives in danger. In these cases, he warns, “those who do not accept the fundamental values of the host societies should be sent back as soon as circumstances in their country permit.”
A Pyrrhic victory
The struggle between the two schools has emerged with enormous violence in the past two years, thanks to the crisis that has unleashed a steady succession of hundreds of migrant deaths, for example in the waters of Lampedusa, since the tragedy of 2013, and the debate that has led to the admission of thousands of Syrian refugees in recent months.
The situation is extremely complex because of the predictable alarm in countries they arrive in, and the fact that they think they will not be able to process their presence there. Added to this is, first, the anger of some Eurosceptic parties who demand nothing short of sealing up the borders and, second, the negotiations over whether the UK will continue in the European Union or not. This also includes a section on immigration.
For the time being, it seems clear that the first school of thought, which favours a more liberal regime, is winning the game. Its ideas have served, for example, to justify the suspension of the Dublin Regulation, or the approval of Syrian refugee quotas which was imposed by majority vote at the last summit of European interior ministers in September. In addition, the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, and German Chancellor, Angela Merkel (although the argument now seems to have changed somewhat) have defended many of their arguments in public.
Anyway, it is undeniable that the second school is gaining increasing support among the population – and also the leaders of some European countries. This is increasingly seen as a moderate and sensible formula in a context marked by terrorist attacks like those in Paris, and by some member states which have not yet got through the last debt crisis – and the growing divorce between the European partners over migration issues. To this we must add the destabilisation of the coalition (CDU-CSU) which has supported conservative politicians like Merkel for decades; the rise in extreme right-wing Eurosceptic parties that have made limits on immigration one of its main themes and the way in which Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and, to a much lesser extent, Austria and Finland are demanding new restrictions on the arrival of foreigners.
A lot is at stake for us in this game: deciding who we are, who we want to be, and what really are European values. Exactly that.