Despite falling numbers, immigration remains divisive EU issue

Easier to continue campaigning even if the numbers are falling, than address more substantial and complex issues:

Migrant arrivals to Italy have almost dried up, new asylum requests across the European Union have more than halved in three years and at the end of 2018, Hungary’s reception centers housed just three refugees.

On the face of it, Europe’s migrant crisis appears over, but the shockwaves still resound around the continent ahead of this month’s European Parliament election, and nationalist politicians are looking to capitalize on the continued tumult.

“The most important thing is that leaders are elected who oppose immigration so that Europe will be in a position to defend itself,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on the sidelines of an EU summit in Romania last week.

Opponents accuse far-right and populist parties of grossly exaggerating the problem, but the issue still resonates, with a YouGov poll published on Monday showing that immigration was currently the voters’ top concern, followed by climate change.

The survey, carried out in eight EU states, showed just 3% of respondents thought “all is well” on the migration front, YouGov said. Only 14% believed the European Union had done a good job handling the emergency.

Once consigned to the fringes of European politics, anti-immigrant parties saw support surge in 2015 when more than a million refugees and migrants flowed out of the Middle East and Africa in search of a safer, better life in Europe.

The influx caught EU governments by surprise, stretching both social and security services, and revealing the inability of Brussels to find a way of sharing the immigration burden in the face of wildly conflicting national interests.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, nationalist and eurosceptic parties are expected to chalk up their best ever result in the May 23-26 EU vote, putting them in a strong position to shape policy in the 28-nation bloc over the coming five years.

LOSING MOMENTUM

In all, some 4.57 million people have requested asylum here in the European Union since the last EU vote in 2014, a threefold increase over the prior five-year period, according to EU statistics agency Eurostat. But the numbers are receding.

Thanks partly to much tighter controls, often put in place by newly empowered anti-immigrant parties such as the League in Italy, new arrivals to Europe fell to under 150,000 last year here, U.N. data shows, with even fewer expected in 2019.

Headed by Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, the League looks set to emerge as Italy’s largest party in the May ballot, with polls suggesting it will win around 30% against 6% at the last EU election in 2014 and 17% at a 2018 national ballot.

Since taking office last June, Salvini has effectively closed ports to migrants rescued in the Mediterranean, helping cut new arrivals here to around 1,100 so far in 2019 here, down some 90% on 2018 levels and 98% on the same period in 2017.

But latest polls suggest momentum for the League might be slowing, with the focus on immigration starting to fade – at least in Italy, where concerns about the economy and corruption are pushing to the fore.

“Salvini hopes immigration will remain a central issue because it is one that generates most support for him,” said Lorenzo Pregliasco, head of political analysis firm YouTrend.

“But is hard for him to say ‘we have reduced migrant arrivals by 98 percent’ and then keep saying immigration is a threat. This is creating a problem for him,” Pregliasco told Reuters.

Looking to keep migration in the spotlight, the League and its political allies in Europe have been quick to portray the newcomers as a security threat, pointing to deadly jihadist attacks over the past five years, including assaults in Paris, Brussels, Berlin, London and Barcelona.

A poll by the European Council on Foreign Relations said there was a clear majority in every country for better protection of Europe’s borders, while Europeans saw Islamic radicalism as the biggest threat facing the continent.

“There is a creeping Islamisation, a population change, or a population displacement,” said Heinz-Christian Strache, the head of Austria’s far-right Freedom (FPO) party, a junior coalition partner.

PLAYING ON FEARS

Mainstream parties accuse the populists of playing on base emotions and say they are not interested in finding a comprehensive solution to the refugee question, which could include quotas for redistributing new arrivals around the bloc, and better integrating migrants into European society.

“The danger I see is that there are politicians in Europe who have a reason to keep this problem alive,” Manfred Weber, the German lead candidate for the EU center-right, told Reuters.

Germany took in more than a million asylum-seekers in 2015 – a decision welcomed by human rights groups, but that also stoked support for the anti-migrant, far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Tapping into discontent amongst part of the electorate, AfD entered the national parliament for the first time in 2017 and is the only German party that is putting an emphasis on immigration in campaigning for the EU vote.

“Refugees are bringing crime into our towns,” the AfD has said in Tweets and leaflets ahead of the ballot – an assertion rejected by its opponents.

Mainstream German parties are focusing on other issues and hoping immigration will fall off the radar screen. It is a similar story in France, where President Emmanuel Macron’s party has listed immigration as only its number 5 priority, with the environment in the top spot.

Gerald Knaus, chairman of the Berlin-based European Stability Initiative think-tank, believes that by relegating the question, moderate parties will allow extremist rivals to frame the debate and let the anti-immigrant narrative predominate.

“What is lacking from mainstream parties is a coherent, convincing message that they can control arrivals without violating human rights,” he told Reuters.

“The majority of people want migration control but they also have empathy for refugees. As things stand, these voters have no-one to turn to (in this election).”

Anti-Immigration Groups See Trump’s Calls for More Legal Immigrants as a Betrayal

Kind of amusing. But one should judge his administrations anti-immigration actions more than this apparent change of language:

For months, President Trump has been railing about the urgent need for a wall to protect against what he calls “an invasion” of illegal immigrants flooding across the southwestern border. But he has also been delivering another message: “We need workers,” he told a group of activists recently.

In other words, he wants more immigrants.

“I want people to come into our country, in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally,” Mr. Trump ad-libbed last month during his State of the Union address.

Comments like those from the president have ignited furious criticism from his hard-line, anti-immigrant supporters who accuse him of caving to demands for cheap foreign labor from corporations, establishment Republicans and big donors while abandoning his election promise to protect his working-class supporters from the effects of globalism.

“This is clearly a betrayal of what immigration hawks hoped the Trump administration would be for,” said Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates cutting legal immigration by more than half. He warned that Mr. Trump was in danger of being “not even that different from a conventional Republican.”

Breitbart News, a conservative website that promotes anti-immigrant messaging, published on Thursday the latest in a series of articles attacking Mr. Trump for catering to big business at the expense of the Americans who put him in the Oval Office. “Trump Requests ‘More’ Foreign Workers as Southern Border Gets Overrun,” the site blared on its home page.

“That Mr. Trump would advance the interests of the global elite ahead of our citizens would be a tragic reversal on any day,” Lou Dobbs, the Fox News host, said in a televised rant against the president on Wednesday evening on the Fox Business Channel. “The White House has simply lost its way.”

Corporations and influential corporate conservatives such as Charles G. Koch and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have long urged the president to help them recruit the talent they need by expanding the number of workers who can enter the United States from other countries.

That has become more urgent as the economy has improved and as declining unemployment has made it harder for companies to find workers. To assuage their concerns, Mr. Trump has increasingly tailored his immigration talking points to cater to the needs of business executives like those who attended a business round table on Wednesday at the White House.

“We’re going to have a lot of people coming into the country. We want a lot of people coming in. And we need it,” Mr. Trump said as he sat next to Tim Cook, the chief executive of Apple, and other executives. “We want to have the companies grow, and the only way they’re going to grow is if we give them the workers, and the only way we’re going to have the workers is to do exactly what we’re doing.”

But that message runs counter to the hard-line immigration image that Mr. Trump has carefully nurtured — most recently by shutting the government down for 35 days in a failed attempt to pressure Congress to fund a wall on the Mexican border.

Mr. Trump won the White House in no small part by embracing anti-immigrant messaging that tapped into the economic fears of blue-collar workers upset about losing their jobs to foreign workers. Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, he attacked undocumented immigrants as “rapists and murderers” and called for a “big, beautiful wall” along the border with Mexico.

Since becoming president, Mr. Trump has aggressively sought to crack down on illegal border crossings, increase deportations, cut the number of refugees allowed into the United States and make it harder for migrants to claim asylum. He has complained about drug dealers, gangs and members of Central American caravans pouring across the border. And last summer, his administration separated thousands of migrant children from their parents in an effort to deter Central American families from trying to seek refuge in the United States.

The harsh record — and comments by Mr. Trump that disparaged African nations in vulgar terms and suggested that Haitian immigrants “all have AIDS” — has earned him the enmity of Democrats and immigration activists, who call him a racist president.

It is unclear whether Mr. Trump will follow through on his recent, pro-business messaging. Many of the president’s aides — including Stephen Miller, his top immigration adviser in the White House — agree with the hard-line activists about the need to lower legal immigration.

In 2017, Mr. Trump endorsed the Raise Act, a Republican Senate bill that would reduce legal immigration by as much as 50 percent. And the administration is currently considering a proposal to cut immigration by denying work authorizations, known as H-4 permits, to almost 100,000 spouses of immigrants who are brought in by companies to work legally in the United States.

But even so, some of the nation’s most hard-line anti-immigration activists have become increasingly nervous that Mr. Trump might waver on their primary concern — the need to shrink the number of immigrants who enter the United States each year, currently 1.1 million.

They argue that tight labor markets make it exactly the wrong time to allow more foreign workers to compete with Americans. Chris Chmielenski, the deputy director of NumbersUSA, which lobbies for lower legal immigration, said companies should be pressured to hire more Americans instead.

“Anything we do now to bring in more foreign workers could actually reverse some of the economic gains over the last four years,” Mr. Chmielenski said. “We’re absolutely concerned. We feel this isn’t how he ran on the issue.”

Last week, in an effort to communicate that message directly to Mr. Trump, NumbersUSA began airing an ad on Fox News Channel in the hopes that the president would get the message that his supporters do not want to let in more than one million immigrants each year.

“The majority of voters say the number should be cut to 500,000 or less,” the ad said. “Americans want less immigration.”

Mr. Krikorian, of the Center for Immigration Studies, said that companies that no longer have access to foreign workers would have no choice but to turn to Americans who are still struggling to find work: people with disabilities, teenagers, older people and even former convicts.

He also said that modest increases in wages for workers would evaporate if companies were allowed to simply tap an unlimited pool of lower-paid workers from other countries.

“If you want wages to go up,” Mr. Krikorian said, “you don’t import more foreign labor.”

Business groups dispute that analysis. They argue that immigration expands the amount of business activity in the United States, adding jobs and increasing wages for the vast majority of American workers.

“Our country has benefited tremendously from welcoming people who have contributed to our economy, our communities, across the board,” said James Davis, a spokesman for the Koch network. “We want to welcome in everyone who wants to contribute to our society. We want to see more legal immigration.”

Todd Schulte, the president of FWD.us, a pro-immigration advocacy group that started with backing from Mark Zuckerberg, a founder of Facebook, said that “immigrants and immigration increase economic growth, they increase economic productivity and they increase wages for the overwhelming number of native-born Americans.”

Mr. Schulte, whose group has been highly critical of Mr. Trump’s anti-immigrant messaging and policies, welcomed the president’s recognition that legal immigration is a positive thing for the United States’ economy.

But he cautioned that Mr. Trump must be measured by his actions, not his words. He called on the president to halt the effort to deny the H-4 work permits to immigrant spouses.

“He should stop trying to revoke the H-4 rule,” Mr. Schulte said. “Increasing legal immigration would help native-born Americans. Unfortunately, the record has been one bent on cutting overall immigration levels.”

The far right spreads its wings over Europe

Good survey of the rise of intolerance and right-wing anti-immigration parties by Jonathan Manthorpe and his plea for perspective:

There’s no doubt at all that public fears of Islamist violence have been stoked by government alerts and alarmism — a trend that started before the 9-11 attacks. More recently, western governments — including our own — have seized on the psychopathic Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq, warning that Muslim citizens recruited into IS will return with terrorist skills and cause havoc at home.

As with the Charlie Hebdo attack, the “lone wolf” killings of two Canadian soldiers in Quebec City and Ottawa in October have been held up as evidence of the threat of radicalized Muslims living in the West. What’s missing from these panic-fueled statements is anything like perspective.

Remember, just two Canadian misogynists — Robert Pickton and Marc Lepine — together accounted for the deaths of 63 people. And on any bad day, Canada’s warring drug gangs in greater Vancouver and Toronto notch up death tolls far outstripping anything Islamic terrorists can come up with. And most mass killings of Mounties in recent years — four at Mayerthorpe in 2005 and three in Moncton last June — have been perpetrated by mentally unstable Canadians with hunting rifles.

The far right spreads its wings over Europe (paywall)

And Gwynne Dyer on the situation in Germany:

Germany is taking in more immigrants than ever before: some 600,000 this year. That’s not an intolerable number for a country of 82 million, but it does mean that if current trends persist, the number of foreign-born residents will almost double to 15 million in just 10 years. That will take some getting used to—and there’s another thing. A high proportion of the new arrivals in Germany are Muslim refugees.

Two-thirds of those 600,000 newcomers in 2014 were people from other countries of the European Union where work is scarce or living standards are lower. They have the legal right to come under EU rules, and there’s really nothing Germany can do about it. Besides, few of the EU immigrants are Muslims.

The other 200,000, however, are almost all refugees who are seeking asylum in Germany. The number has almost doubled in the past year, and will certainly grow even larger this year. And the great majority of the asylum-seekers are Muslims.

This is not a Muslim plot to colonize Europe. It’s just that a large majority of the refugees in the world are Muslims. At least three-quarters of the world’s larger wars are civil wars in Muslim countries like Syria (by far the biggest source of new refugees), Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and Libya.

Asylum-seekers: The limits of tolerance in Europe

And a more encouraging story from Germany, that of Professor Mouhanad Khorchide:

In his lecture, the long conversation and a telephone call after the shootings on Wednesday at the office of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris, Mr. Khorchide was calm and optimistic, delivering insight with a Viennese lilt in his German.

He expressed fear that extremists on both sides would try to use the attack for their own ends. “The Muslim extremists will say, ‘Oh, look how strong and mighty we are,’ ” he said, “while those who fear Islam will say, ‘See, that is what Islam is, and what we were warning about all along.’ ”

He said he expected more attacks, but also more questioning from Muslims. “Such events force us to discuss openly about theological positions,” he said. “It is too simple to say, ‘No, no, that has nothing to do with Islam.’ These people,” he added of jihadists, “are referring to the Quran, and we must confront these passages in the Quran.”

His students, he said, were angry after the Paris shootings. In part, they were upset with Muslim extremists seeking to please what they consider a false idol. But they were also resentful that now “they must justify themselves: ‘We are peaceful,’ ” he said. “And this constant justifying and defending oneself is annoying.”

Europe’s populist current “whips up fears where no fears exist,” Mr. Khorchide said. “For instance, the Islamization of Europe: Demographic data shows that this is a fantasy.”

Furthermore, he noted, Muslim children born in Europe now tend to adopt its ways, the tiny minority who go off to fight in Iraq and Syria notwithstanding.

Teaching Islam’s ‘Forgotten’ Side as Germany Changes

Lastly, from the Netherlands, not surprising to see a spike in support for Geert Wilders.

But interesting that the Dutch PM declined to use the word “war” in favour of  a more nuanced expression, yet one that also communicates resolve:

Wilders, known for his inflammatory rhetoric, said after the Paris bloodshed that the West was “at war” with Islam, drawing a rebuke from Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte on Sunday.

If elections were held now, his party would be the single largest in the Netherlands, with 31 seats in the 150-member parliament, more than twice as many as it won in the last elections, according to a Sunday poll.

The governing Liberal and Labour parties, damaged by persistent sluggish growth, would have just 28 seats between them, compared to the 79 they held after the 2012 elections.

The Freedom Party was polling 30 seats just prior to the Jan. 7-9 Paris attacks, in which 17 people including journalists and policemen were killed by three Islamist gunmen who were later shot dead by French special forces.

Wilders this week called in an interview for measures against Islam: “If we don’t do anything, it will happen here,” he was quoted by the newspaper Het Parool as saying.

But speaking to Dutch public television shortly before leaving to attend a peace rally in Paris, the Dutch prime minister distanced himself from Wilders’s comments.

“I would never use the word ‘war,'” he said. “We are in a struggle with extremists who are using a belief as an excuse for attacks.”

More than 80 percent of respondents to the De Hond poll said people who left the Netherlands to wage jihad (holy war) in Syria should lose their Dutch citizenship and those returning from fighting in Syria or Iraq should face lengthy jail terms.

Paris attacks boost support for Dutch anti-Islam populist Wilders | Reuters.