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Let's open Europe to immigration

Why Pope Francis's visit to Lampedusa highlights a challenge for all of us.

Pope Francis visits migrants on the Italian island of Lampedusa.
Pope Francis visits migrants on the Italian island of Lampedusa. (Photo: Getty.)

The symbolic power of the trip of Pope Francis to Lampedusa has drawn the world's attention to the persecution and deaths of migrants who attempt to join the European continent. The Pope's visit also highlights a striking paradox: although Europe needs more immigration, public discourse about it is tinted with mistrust and fear.

Indeed, taking into account the demographic evolution in Europe since the end of WWII, and more specifically the steady birth rate decline and the increase in life expectancy, it appears that our continent needs the contribution of immigration to escape the perpetual weakening of social security, the raising of retirement age, and the shrinking of pensions.

Yet in recent decades, immigration policies implemented all around Europe by every party and every political leader regardless of their political backgrounds, have been characterised by distrust. Hence, these policies are extremely restrictive.

The establishment of the European agency Frontex, whose main mission consists in intercepting migrants at the European borders, encapsulates current immigration policies in Europe. Distinguished by its violent interventions, Frontex became the symbol of "Fortress Europe", a closed and self-sufficient continent, a territory remaining unmoved by those who risk their life during long months, who do not hesitate to follow dangerous routes and who hope that a better life awaits them. Last year, more than 500 people coming from Africa died, to our worrying indifference, while attempting to reach Lampedusa. At the very moment of this tragedy, millions of other refugees were shut up in prison-like detention centres.

The "Dublin II" agreements are another illustration of European immigration policies. These agreements enable Member States to send back illegal migrants to the country that they first cross when they arrived on the European territory. Given the fact that Greece is, along with the south of Italy, the main entry point for migrants in Europe, many refugees land in Greece. Such a situation is unmanageable for local authorities and is exploited by Greek neo-Nazis to guarantee electoral and social support for their political party Golden Dawn, and enable them to freely persecute and kill migrants.

Distrust of migrants is now the dominant political position in Europe. It is not a coincidence. This stance embodies the ideological victory of extreme right-wing partisans and is the result of their fierce struggle to impose their viewpoint. As they knew that open antisemitism and racism would not lead them to an electoral victory, many extreme right-wing parties opted for the strategy of stigmatising immigrants and gradually imposed their opinions.

The implications of this ideological success from the far right are extremely painful: on the one hand less social rights for the entire society, and on the other hand more violence and more racist murders just like in Greece.

Similarly, the way in which extreme right-wing street movements and far right political parties complement one another is obvious. When some, sometimes very close to power, claim to be "normalised", they actually ensure the ideological victory of their political family and intend to raise tensions that enable violent acts.

However, we have to understand that more immigration is necessary in Europe not only because we need to ensure high level of social rights, but also because it is a necessity for democracy and human rights in the world.

First, welcoming more immigrants would increase the number of persons who stand to benefit from the rights as guaranteed in Europe. On condition that such a policy would not deprive poor countries of their elites, more people could enjoy democratic values.

Second, the future of Europe and the future of democracy are tightly linked. Stimulating immigration toward Europe could expand the European market, galvanise innovation, create an economy more open to the world and more dynamic and thus enable our old continent to compete with the new economic leaders whose political systems are often too authoritarian. As a consequence, we can imagine that emerging countries would be more attracted to democracy, and thus that democratic values and practices could spread worldwide, as it would be still recognized as an effective model of development.

If Europe wants to meet the challenge of immigration, that is to say face its future, it must win a cultural victory: to overcome distrust.

Such a shift implies the end of indifference to the "penning" of immigrants, the imprisonment of people - who, by the way, often come from former European colonies in Africa and Asia - in detention centers where living conditions are inappropriate for human beings. It also means fighting for equality, to set out a continent free from racism and antisemitism. It means placing democratic values at the heart of the common Europe project; and it also means rejecting austerity dogma as the current leading political principle of European institutions and governments.

The future of our continent and the future of democracy in the world are at stake.

Benjamin Abtan is President of the European Grassroots Antiracist Movement - EGAM