Monday, May 19, 2008

Dangerous Games With Immigration

Maria Teresa de la Vega, one of the vice presidents of the Spanish government took a swipe at the Italian government the other day over the anti-gypsy pogroms around Naples. It was a welcome statement, that Berlusconi’s government should try and make foreigners responsible for crime in Italy is, apart from being inaccurate, a major insult to all of those who have spent so many generations of effort building up domestic organised crime in that country. You would have thought that Silvio himself might know a thing or two about that. In any case, soothing diplomatic statements had to be issued along the lines of “When we called you a bunch of xenophobic bastards, what we really meant to say was that you are some of the warmest, most hospitable people we have ever encountered.

The initial protest was also welcome for other reasons, because the Spanish government recently has shown alarming signs of adopting a different discourse on immigration. I have the feeling that someone in the PSOE, shortly after the general election in March, told José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero that his party had lost votes to the opportunist attempts by the Partido Popular (PP) to play with the issue of immigration. First of all we got the appointment of Celestino Corbacho as minister in charge of work and immigration. His appointment was accompanied by plentiful press messages on how he had handled the town of L’Hospitalet as mayor with a bit of a “tough love” attitude towards the immigrants who made up a sizeable proportion of the towns population.

More recently things got worse as it seemed that the Spanish government was giving its support to a new directive from the European Union on immigration which was going to make the expulsion of illegal immigrants a top priority. Included in the measure are proposals to significantly lengthen the time during which member states are allowed to hold illegal immigrants in detention centres. The proposal is really a response to those European leaders such as Sarkozy and Berlusconi who have discovered to their delight that they can use fears raised by immigration to their political benefit. It is depressing to see the Spanish government giving any kind of encouragement to this, especially after resisting the temptation to play along with anti-immigrant sentiment during the election campaign itself.

Attempts by parties on the left to mimic the right on this issue always end up playing into the hands of the racists as each successive measure leads to demands for ever harsher legislation. The political history of France over the last 20 years shows this quite well. What you end up with are measures which can be notably headline grabbing and malicious in their treatment of immigrants but which make no real difference to anything else. The PP have of course seized on the government’s change of direction with a predictable “you called us xenophobes and now look at what you are doing” response. For once they could be right. Meanwhile the Italian government has issued a fairly sarcastic note of congratulations to Spain for reducing so successfully the flow of immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa. That a significant possible cause of the reduction is that more are probably drowning on the journey is not a point likely to be made by any of those concerned.

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