A boat carrying migrants being smuggled into Europe recently sank off the coast of Turkey, killing at least 24 people. It was one of many such incidents in recent years that ended in tragedy. For the six migrants who were rescued, though, the story isn't over; they will find their way into immigration detention facilities where they may languish for months or years. The European Union is struggling with an influx of immigrants paired with an utterly regressive immigration policy, and it's leading to political chaos.
One need look no farther than comments from German Prime Minister Angela Merkel this week about new immigration demands from British Prime Minister David Cameron.
The back story is that Britain employs a steady supply of non-EU immigrants willing to labor for low wages in industries where many others refuse to work. But it is also a nation that's turning savagely anti-immigrant. The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) is on the rise, despite — or perhaps, because of — being criticized for racist anti-immigrant fear mongering.
So in a strange twist, British Prime Minister David Cameron is proposing restricting immigration from within the EU to cut down on the overall number of immigrants — ones who, just coincidentally, enjoy more rights than their non-EU counterparts. Merkel is furious.
She warns that he may be crossing a "red line" that could permanently scuttle Britain's chances of remaining in the EU, even as the U.K., like other nations, seems to be rethinking whether it wants to stay in the union at all. She's not the only one — José Manuel Barroso, outgoing EC president, has expressed concerns, saying it would create "first and second class citizens" within the EU.
What Barroso misses is that such a de facto system already exists.
Non-European immigrants who successfully make their way to the EU face exploitation in the underworld. As early as 2007, the BBC reported on a vast human trafficking web that started overseas, with massive payments to recruitment agencies and employers who promised work upon arrival, only to force victims into low-wage jobs. For the nearly 750,000 undocumented migrants in Britain, going to the authorities isn't an option when they may be met with deportation. Once trapped in the U.K., their "employers" may withhold documents, charge exorbitant fees for worker accommodations, withhold wages, retain identification papers, and even try to compel them into sham marriages.
Immigrants also have few legal options for fighting employers who abuse their services, with the BBC comparing the situation to "modern day slavery." The Crown is primarily focused on deporting undocumented workers and punishing employers, not on looking out for the welfare of those who have fallen into the trap of an abusive labor market. Meanwhile, those who don't make it are hustled to detention facilities with "appalling" conditions where they may spend weeks, months, or even years.
And as people are desperate to enter the EU — lured by the possibility of economic opportunity and the chance to escape war-torn regions of the world — the political climate is growing increasingly hostile.
Earlier this year, anti-immigrant parties dominated the elections, with some nations even voting in anti-immigration measures in the face of threatened censure from the EU. And anti-immigrant parties are gaining serious influence. UKIP is rising in Britain. Front National is now the third largest party in France, as is Geert Wilders' Party for Freedom in the Netherlands. Greece's extremist party Golden Dawn continues to rise to prominence despite efforts to check its influence.
These and other groups are putting pressure on the traditional political powerhouses across Europe, not just in the U.K. Like the Tories, many conservative parties are pulled by competing interests; they oppose immigration, but also want to take advantage of the benefits of cheap labor across the economy.
The hypocrisy here explains why EU immigration policy has become so hopelessly snarled. While the left advocates for more compassionate immigration policies, the right opposes them for political gain, while still apparently wanting to structure in loopholes to accommodate major political forces that need farmhands, factory workers, domestic employees, and other menial laborers.
So Merkel and Barroso might want to watch their backs. The pressures that have led David Cameron to try to undermine one of the foundations of the EU — open borders — could be a prelude to what comes next for continental Europe. Built on a murky idea of common 'Europeanness' and a far more tangible notion of free trade, the EU will increasingly turn on itself unless its fear of immigrants is exorcized.
Don't count me among the hopeful.