From Gunboat Diplomacy to Compassion?

The sinking of a boatload of Somali immigrants off the island of Lampedusa seems to have set off something akin to a feeling of collective remorse in Italy. (Would that the human tragedy that is occuring on a regular basis just off the straits of Gibraltar could provoke a similar reaction here in Spain!) Indeed Belusconi (always the master of great theatre) appears to have had them near to tears over in Strasbourg.

Irony apart, even his old ‘enemy’ – the good-soldier schultz – is quoted as saying he has “the impression that what Mr Berlusconi said came from the heart”. He could not however resist a reference to remarks which were last year attributed to Italian Reforms Minister Umberto Bossi to the effect that he wished the navy would open fire on ships carrying illegal migrants. Schulz is quoted as saying: “We are very happy that it is not those members of your government who want these boats sunk who are responsible for this issue in the (EU) home affairs council.”

Well this is the second time this month I find myself asking whether Berlusconi is having a change of heart. Since I try not to engage in type M speculation, I don’t need to answer this. What we might note is the way Interior Minister Pisanu is making the direct link with Italy’s ageing population and (hence) pension difficulties. After the Greeks tried to raise the question in Thessalonika, we could ask ourselves whether the South of Europe (where the demographic collapse is most profound, and immigrants are traditionally less in evidence) is about to adopt a collectively different approach on this question.

Italian minister calls for European immigration quotas

The European Union needs to rethink its immigration policy by setting up a quota system, Italian Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu told the country’s parliament Wednesday.

He was speaking two days after a boat carrying illegal immigrants, believed to be Somalis, sank off the southern Italian island of Lampedusa. At least 13 are known to have died but it is feared the death toll may be as high as 70. There were 15 survivors.

The parliamentarians observed a minute’s silence in respect of the dead.

Pisanu, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the EU, put forward his scheme for quotas at a meeting of EU interior ministers last month.

The idea is that countries outside the EU would be granted quotas in return for undertakings to fight illegal immigration and take back their nationals who were refused admission to the EU or expelled from it. The proposal is being considered by the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission.

“We have a duty to measure the size and complexity of the phenomenon of immigration and to seek to control it with rules and (the necessary) means,” Pisanu said.

“Leaving the phenomenon to itself will cost us a lot more than any reasonable attempt to bring it under control.”

Pisanu said that if there had been no immigration into Europe during the last 10 years it would have lost two percent of its population.

“If Italy has no immigration in the next 10 years… it will lose four and a half million people in the active population, in the 20 to 40 age range.”

The illegal immigrants on the boat that sank off Lampedusa were Somalis fleeing civil war in their country, a news agency reported Wednesday.

The Roman Catholic agency Misna, which has close ties with humanitarian organisations, quoted Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders – MSF) as the source of its report.

“They were fleeing from (the Somali capital) Mogadishu to escape the threats of the clans that lay down the law in Somalia. They were all civilians,” Loris De Filippi of MSF told Misna, speaking from Lampedusa, south of Sicily, where some of the 15 survivors are being cared for.

The deaths have shocked Italy and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi called on “a Christian and civilised Europe” to open up to immigrants in a speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

MSF quoted a survivor, Mohamed Osman, as saying that about 100 people, among them 17 women and seven children, left a small Libyan port on October 3. The boat’s engine broke down almost at once and the vessel began drifting. After two days six people tried to swim to shore. The first death, that of a women, occurred on the fourth day.

On Tuesday the trial of two alleged human traffickers charged with manslaughter in connection with the deaths of 283 illegal immigrants in December 1996 was postponed so technical details could be examined.

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About Edward Hugh

Edward 'the bonobo is a Catalan economist of British extraction. After being born, brought-up and educated in the United Kingdom, Edward subsequently settled in Barcelona where he has now lived for over 15 years. As a consequence Edward considers himself to be "Catalan by adoption". He has also to some extent been "adopted by Catalonia", since throughout the current economic crisis he has been a constant voice on TV, radio and in the press arguing in favor of the need for some kind of internal devaluation if Spain wants to stay inside the Euro. By inclination he is a macro economist, but his obsession with trying to understand the economic impact of demographic changes has often taken him far from home, off and away from the more tranquil and placid pastures of the dismal science, into the bracken and thicket of demography, anthropology, biology, sociology and systems theory. All of which has lead him to ask himself whether Thomas Wolfe was not in fact right when he asserted that the fact of the matter is "you can never go home again".

19 thoughts on “From Gunboat Diplomacy to Compassion?

  1. Well in this part of the EU deep South (Greece), there is certainly no shortage of immigrants, since they now constitute around 10% of the working age population:

    out of which perhaps half are legal:

    This is a *huge* increase in immigration to Greece from 0 to 1 million in *ten years*. Right now (despite the nonsense one hears from the extreme right) Greece does not have a demographic problem at all, having had an impressive 6.6% increase of population (more like 10% if you count the “hidden” illegals) in the past 10 years according to the census.
    So the “different approach” is already in place as far as Greece is concerned: A lack of any sort of immigration planning or policy and a *very long* unguardable border, means that (whatever the government’s or the population’s position) the country has had a (more or less) incessant flow of huge numbers of illegal immigrants (including maybe up to one in four of all Albanian males).
    Interestingly as this is happening, Greece’s brain drain (skilled people *leaving* Greece) is significant, as a large part of the most highly trained labour force leave the country for the US or Northern Europe, for a number of reasons (low salaries, poor research facilities/infrastructure etc).

  2. The question of immigration is a good one (being an immigrant myself), and one that has me scratching my head in puzzlement.

    On the one hand the demographic facts are clear: Europe’s population is, on average, getting older; numbers are declining. Clearly, then, it is blindingly obvious that an influx of immigrants is necessary to stem the tide: refresh the workforce, invigorate the entrepreneurial culture, and balance out the economy by filling in low-wage niches which the natives are too hautain to occupy.

    On the other hand, in almost every European population, unemployment is disproportionately high among immigrant groups, often reaching levels an order of magnitude higher than the unemployment among natives. Clearly, it is blindingly obvious that immigration must be stopped to reduce the number of parasites leeching off the social security systems, hanging around all day engaging in petty crime, and polluting native culture with counterproductive foreign values.

    This is the paradox I wonder at. The demographic trends speak for themselves, but two other things also stand out:

    – the European workforce is steadily getting less labour intensive, and automation is replacing much low-level niche work

    – Unemployment among immigrants is often endemic.

    So even though I have a personal stake vested in immigration (and am opposed to immigration controls on a purely ideological basis anyway), I don’t see the connection between Europe’s demographic problems and a solution based on immigration.


  3. I have no exact numbers at hand, but with unemployment rates around 10% in Spain for the whole population, a rate an order of magnitude bigger amongst immigrants would put it at more than 90%. And that is patently not so.


  4. Here is the problem Elliott: immigration is a lot more successful in societies like Spain and the US simply becasue there is no effective social security net for them. I imagine unemployment – in terms of those registered as actively looking for work – is virtually non existent, as Antoni indicates, since there are effectively no benefits. The problem in those societies with more developed welfare systems is the poverty trap: the wages are so low that it is only really interesting to work if you have no right to benefits.

    We need a whole fresh approach to this problem. I am still working out my ideas, but they run something along the lines of extensive use of ‘H1B’ type temporary visas for the skilled workers who can then return home with the training (re the other post, I am not against this, I just think we need to address the consequences, and people’s natural concerns), and long term permanent migration at the lower end of the skill register, with ease of incorporation into the labour market, possibility of rapidly entering new (reformed two-pillar) pension schemes, access Grey-Davis style to bank credits to enable home ownership in low-price housing (boosting construction, and putting a floor under an otherwise deflationary housing market). My impression is that many immigrants in the begining don’t have ‘western style’ consumption habits, but they do want to save. All this would give some sense of investment in the ‘new society’. This has to be coupled with labour market reforms, to facilitate entry and to avoid the “unemployment-clustering” problem.

    Is the unemployment you mention among immigrants, or among children born in Europe to immigrant families? I am researching among Bulgarian immigrants here in Spain, and I haven’t found one that was unemployed for more than a couple of weeks.

  5. Talos:
    “now (despite the nonsense one hears from the extreme right) Greece does not have a demographic problem at all”

    Be careful, the fertility rates are very low, but obviously the situation is better for the immigration.

  6. Antoni –
    My examples are couched a little hyperbolically: they are not neccessarily meant to reflect true figures. It’s supposed to be an example of the way representative Benelux politicians from the left or the right would talk.

    Edward –
    Unemployment rates in the Benelux differ for various groups, but on average Moroccans and Turks are two or three times as likely to be unemployed as autochtones. In the Netherlands I believe that Antillians are the immigrant group with the highest unemployment rate (something like 40%, if I recall correctly.

    In the microcosm that is the Netherlands, further filtered by the fact that I offer only anectodal evidence, the following observations:

    * All East Europeans I know, in particular Poles, Romanians and Bulgarians, all find work. They are aggressively hard-working, smart, relatively well-educated, and willing to take on anything, no matter how menial. The exception to this are ex-Yugoslavs.

    * First-generation immigrants from Turkey and Morocco have work, (or worked; most are nearing retirement age): they arrived as guest workers. The second generation has much more problems finding work. Especially Moroccans: Turks manage to maintain social cohesion and order in the Netherlands, but with second-generation Moroccans it seems to have broken down completely.

    * First generation immigrants from the Dutch Antilles have huge problems finding work. First generation immigrants from Surinam are more or less perfetly integrated.

    * There is a large Ghanaian colony in the Netherlands. Unemployment is high among the first generation, but I also have the idea that they have a thriving underground internal expat economy. They interact relatively little with the natives, in either a positive or negative sense.

  7. “Dutch Antilles have huge problems finding work”

    Interesting question: why? Any ideas or information Elliott? Anyone? I tend to smell networks in all this, but I’m open to suggestions.

    Here’s a nice irony. While I was posting this I got a mail from a cousin in the US. Her father was a pacifist war hero in WWI. He got the DCM for rescuing people under fire with the red cross. After the war he was shell-shocked and without work. My dad took him to the US as an immigrant, and later came back to the UK.

    She was brought up in poverty, went to Chicago to study economics, and later became – I think I’m right in saying – the first woman to teach economics in a university in the US. She just wrote to say she likes the Pele Ronaldo piece, but the rest of the mail is a long critique of non-English-speaking immigrants in her area. Oh, the irony of it all.

  8. I’m not sure that I agree with Edward’s characterization of immigration being successful in the US. such Success is generally celebrated at least a couple of generations after the fact, once the descendants are fully integrated. There was fierce hostility against the Irish and the Italians during the time of their respective mass migrations.

    My sister,who has worked as waitress in California, and whose wages and tips as such put her near the poverty level, felt sorry for the Latino cooks in the back; who had to work extra long hours to make up for below poverty-level wages, and thus no time to look a better job, …and no legal recourse (oh and BTW, CA food and health inspectors, the best placed to catch such widespread abuses, are quite bribable, per my sister).

    That’s a true poverty trap.

  9. Edward,

    I am not sure about what you are saying when you write “effective social security”, at the school where I work there are various immigrant children, in my 66 pupils of “segon d’ESO” I have three Maghribis, one Equatorian and two Ucrainians. When I go to the doctor I find that there are quite a few immigrants waiting there, and when going to the OTG (where you ask for work, and they arrange for subsidies when unemployed) immigrants are not only on the work-demand queue. However a lot of work in Spain is irregular, and surely more so with immigrants, even if regulars.


  10. ” I am not sure about what you are saying when you write “effective social security”

    I mean this I suppose in the UK sense. I think the system here in Spain where every immigrant – documented or undocumented – has the right to health care and education for their children is excellent. What I mean is money to stay home and not work. I don’t know what these ‘subsidies’ amount to, but I’m sure they aren’t very substantial. This is what I mean by the poverty trap. If you can only get work at 600 euros a month, and you have 3 children and can get 1,000 a month by staying at home, then probably you stay at home (or better enter the informal economy). This is the big problem.


    “There was fierce hostility against the Irish and the Italians”.

    I’m sure this is right, but I’m equally sure the US has moved on from this, and more than we have here in Europe. Sure, the situation is far from perfect. The only reasonably scientific evidence I can offer is the comparative work we are doing on Bulgarians. My colleague in Sofia who spent a year with immigrants in the US notes eg that over there they tend to put on weight, whilst those who go to Greece and Spain tend to lose it – if you’re worried about obesity then maybe you could interpret this as a European plus. Of course, the life they live is far from the ‘American dream’. But long hours and low wages you are going to find everywhere.

    But my main point is that immigrants are better perceived when they are not seen as ‘spongers’, and when there is precious little to ‘sponge’ off, as in Spain and the US, then the anti-immigrant stuff has less to go on.

  11. Elliot Oti:
    “On the other hand, in almost every European population, unemployment is disproportionately high among immigrant groups, often reaching levels an order of magnitude higher than the unemployment among natives.”
    This must be a north/south divide then, the situation in Greece is exactly as described for Spain: there is little if any unempolyment among the immigrants (and of course having a huge “black” economy helps)

    About the Greek demographic crisis: That’s exactly what I meant: immigration has alleviated the low fertility rates.
    About Bulgarian weight loss: much of it could be explained by the fact that in Greece (particularly Crete which seems to have the largest concentration of Bulgarians in Southern Greece) Bulgarians work in agricultural jobs.
    I defy *anyone* to work in olive groves, vineyards, orange groves or potato farms and actually put on weight.
    Also “If you can only get work at 600 euros a month, and you have 3 children and can get 1,000 a month by staying at home”.
    Is there any country in the world where there is a large portion of unskilled workers are making more than *one and a half times* the minimum wage from unemployment benefits? I got two Pakistani furniture moving neighbours and a Bulgarian waitress at the local coffee shop that would be very interested to learn more about such a fabulous land!

  12. Edward,
    “every immigrant – documented or undocumented – has the right to health care and education for their children is excellent. What I mean is money to stay home and not work”

    Part of the problem with the U.S. medical system, is that Emergency Medicine is considered mandatory for the medical establishment (private and public); government reimbursement for such is, uhm, haphazard, leading to lots of fraudulent but tolerated cost-shifting, and thus opportunities for outright fraud.

    Primary Education is also mandatory, in the U.S..

    Money to stay home and not work is generally not available to those outside the system, and severely restricted for those within the system.

    “”There was fierce hostility against the Irish and the Italians”.

    I’m sure this is right, but I’m equally sure the US has moved on from this”

    Against the Irish and Italians, yes.
    Against Latinos, where the mass migration is still ongoing, no.

  13. Edward, here’s a fact about the big immigration wave the US had aroud 1900: about half of all immigrants (yes, about 50%) who came to the US returned to their native country because conditions were even tougher than back home. US imigration myths (or more generally imigration myths worldwide) are really distorting the public’s view of it all.

  14. Chris:
    “about half of all immigrants”

    Checking the figure – the best reference source I know here is Hatton and Williamson: the Age of Mass Migration – the numbers I come up with are as follows:

    “between 1890 and 1914 return migration was 30% of the gross inflow. It varied greatly by nationality: the ratio was nearly half among Italians and Spaniards, but only 5% among Russians Irish and Scandinavians”

    My father was, as I’ve said, a return migrant. He came back with a new skill and set up a small business. He never told me it was because the conditions were too hard. I suspect that things were difficult, both at home and abroad, but that the national variations have more to do with cultural and kinship differences.

  15. The USA are, in my view, a pre-XX century northern European dreamland. That is, the variation of the climate is similar, but more favorable, to the one they were accostumed at home. Now for Spaniards, and Italians, it was exceedingly different. Lets not forget that life then was mostly rural. Schooling, when done, rather limited. People learned to work at home, so when thing devied from experience it was hard to make the right choices.


  16. Seems to have died a death over here. Just to wind it up, even though I put a disclaimer, I guess this post and the one above are intimately connected. OTOH we have ageing populations and need immigration, OTOH some of the developing countries very definitely are on their way up. The two go hand in hand, and all our previous conceptions of the world may well change as a consequence. To see perhaps how, here’s a link to Monbiot in the guardian:,3604,1067344,00.html

    My problem is that every time I say something, I seem to be getting it wrong. If I say the US handle immigrants better, someone puts me straight. If I say immigrants are a very positive thing, someone else wants to put me straight again by explaining the difficulties immigrants cause. Last of all, I shoot myself in the foot by giving the impression that I want to take benefits away.

    My point is that this is a second best world. There are no easy answers: that is why I shy away from politics. The way forward often comes through changing how we perceive things, and that is my objective in these posts. Whether we are in the US or Europe we should be trying to learn from each other. My argument on benefits comes simply from my perception that these are the questions which preoccupy the ‘native’ Europeans most. In all the surveys this seems to be the factor most associated with prejudice. This is in general why people talk about unemployed immigrants (I’m not referring to you Elliott) – if they weren’t getting benefits no-one would worry.

    We are in a second best world and we need second best – pragmatic – solutions. As even the Italian government seem to be recognising, we need immigrants in pretty large numbers. Now just how do we make this workable? This is the point.

  17. Edward,
    My intent wasn’t to discourage you, but rather to dispel some myths that might have led you into failure.

    I do, in fact, encourage you to look at the U.S. immigration system, including its many warts, for ideas of what to co-opt *and* what to avoid.

    Yes, the Perfect is the enemy of the Good, but to call the present U.S. immigration service ‘good’ is to give it entirely too much credit.

    It should be possible to design a much better social institution that outshines those of both the U.S. and Europe; by recognizing and avoiding their mistakes.

  18. “My colleague in Sofia who spent a year with immigrants in the US notes eg that over there they tend to put on weight, whilst those who go to Greece and Spain tend to lose it – if you’re worried about obesity then maybe you could interpret this as a European plus.”
    The World Health Organization says that there are now more overweight than underweight people in the world – even in places like Brazil. Seeing that weight nowadays tends to be slightly – but increasingly – negatively correlated with health, I have to conclude that the “pro-European” interpretation of the data is the correct one.

    I was intrigued by your data on return migration and went off googling. Among other things, I found this:
    “The Dynamics of Repeat Migration: A Markov Chain Analysis
    by Amelie Constant, Klaus F. Zimmermann
    While the literature has established that there is substantial and highly selective return migration, the growing importance of repeat migration has been largely ignored. Using Markov chain analysis, this paper provides a modeling framework for repeated moves of migrants between the host and home countries. The Markov transition matrix between the states in two consecutive periods is parameterized and estimated using a logit specification and a large panel data with 14 waves. The analysis for Germany, the largest European immigration country, shows that more than 60% of the migrants are indeed repeat migrants. The out-migration per year is low, about 10%. Migrants are more likely to leave again early after their arrival in Germany, and when they have social and familial bonds in the home country, but less likely when they have a job in Germany and speak the language well. Once out-migrated from Germany, the return probability is about 80% and guided mainly by remittances and family considerations.”
    Are we talking about lifelong temping and seasonal employment here? About a merry-go-round of in- and out-migration in a brutal global labour market where the chance of stable employment for unskilled workers has gone forever? Prima facie, this seems to be what the data imply.

  19. “I do, in fact, encourage you to look at the U.S. immigration system, including its many warts, for ideas of what to co-opt *and* what to avoid.”

    Then Partick I’m happy to say consensus has been found.

    “Are we talking about lifelong temping and seasonal employment here?”

    Interesting link Joerg, thanks. This also ties in with a study some bulgarians did recently where they found that most migration was temporary, but that people who had been before had more probability of going again.

    I think this is very much an East European phenomenon (or Mexican in the case of the US). The same happened with Spain, Portugal and Greece before their EU admission, or rather before they achieved stable economic growth and convergence. My wife has an uncle who lives in Valencia but gets a small pension from the French state for many ‘seasons’ of grape picking.

    I think the big watershed here will be when a final decision is taken about the other ‘transition countries’: Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia, the Ukraine, Russia. If they manage to come in successfully then this migartion will be temporary. But if things don’t go that way, and they may not do, then we will see real permanent migration in considerable numbers. This, at least, is my feeling.

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