Pulling back the welcome mat

Marci McDonald September 3 1979

Pulling back the welcome mat

Marci McDonald September 3 1979

Pulling back the welcome mat


Marci McDonald

In the desolate cell of a migrant worker’s hostel on the Paris outskirts, he wakens each morning from a dream of lost sun and bougainvillea to the cramped plasterboard reality of a dormitory where the stench of communal cooking and fear hangs in the air. The room isn’t big enough to hold a chair beside his single cot, but he does not dare venture out. For Ahmed, a 28year-old Algerian who has lost his job as a private garbage collector, the streets of France have become a jungle, alive with gendarmes who could swoop down and demand his working papers which are about to expire. The country to which he once fled so gladly has become a landscape of terror—a minefield of possible discovery and deportation. “As long as I was useful to them, the French wanted me,” he says. “Now that I need work, they want to throw me out.”

Among France’s 4.5 million foreign population, that bitter conclusion is echoing with increasing alarm. In the wake of protests by the press, trade unions and human rights activists, including movie actor Yves Montand, the French senate has just put off debate on two controversial new laws that would mean a severe crackdown on the country’s immigrant workers.

One empowers police to deport instantly anyone who is found without proper papers or sufficient funds to leave the country; or who is deemed a “threat to public order.” The other, which would combine work and residence permits into a single card, gives authorities sweeping new discretionary powers to decide who stays in France, including the right to deport any foreigner unemployed for six consecutive months.

There is little doubt that this fall, France’s secretary of state for immigrant workers, Lionel Stoleru, will win support for both measures, which he freely admits are designed to force 200,000 foreign workers a year, or one million by 1985 to leave. “Immigration has been growing for the last 20 years,” he says. “Now it’s time for a 20year reversal of that process.”

Those winds of change aren’t confined to the hexagonal borders of France, which currently claims the highest foreign population on the continent. From Britain to Switzerland, Sweden to West Germany, the immigrants who swarmed into Europe’s in-

dustrial centres in the boom years of the early 1960s, armed with little more than cardboard suitcases and a willingness to do the dirty work that the local citizenry disdained, are suddenly finding the welcome mat being pulled out from under their feet.

Although the 1975 economic recession led several European countries to cut down on immigration, the immigrant population has now swelled to an estimated 14.6 million, in part thanks to a mushrooming birthrate. In West Germany, one child born out of every five is non-German—most being offspring of the massive Turkish labor force which has won districts like Berlin’s Kreuzberg the dubious ghetto appellation of “Little Ankara.” As unemployment mounted, Germany’s right-wing politicians haven’t missed an opportunity to sound the alarms against the four million gastarbeiter, or guest workers, most of whom do the street sweeping and unpleasant factory toil.

Now, with another recession on the horizon prompted by the last OPEC price hike, the plight of Europe’s immigrant work force promises to worsen. Indeed,

in France, as on the rest of the continent, where foreign workers are suddenly finding themselves blamed for every urban ill from rocketing social service costs to inner-city blight, the new anti-immigrant laws are being taken as evidence of growing racism and xenophobia—and of a new political drift to the right.

But it is tiny, pacific Switzerland, which for years depended on its imported Italian work force, that has dealt most swiftly—and brutally—with the problem. The country has managed to reduce its foreign work force by half, to 410,000 in 1977 from one million in 1973, by not renewing work permits and by arbitrary deportations.

The situation was summed up in the 1974 Italian film Bread and Chocolate, which shows actor Nino Manfredi desperately trying to stay in Bern’s ordered blandness, even if it means a peroxide job. When he finally loses his identity papers (for relieving himself in public), he bleats to police: “What do I tell my family, that I was sent home for peeing?”

In West Germany, where the constitution bars such measures, the 1.5 million members of the Turkish work force

often dwell in a deracinated twilight zone, unwilling to return to the economic wasteland at home but confined to a ghetto universe. Unable to dovetail with the language and culture that surround them, despite a $23.8-million-ayear government program for job and language training, the Turkish gastarbeiter are spawning a second generation of what the newsmagazine Der Spiegel calls “bilingual illiterates,” two-thirds of whom drop out of school by age 15. That in turn is transforming some industrial centres into latent racial cauldrons. One labor executive laments that frictions are “explosive.”

In Belgium, a survey showed that 80 per cent of the population shied away from foreigners’ shops, considering them “dirty.” In France, the callers on a recent phone-in show following an immigration debate voted overwhelmingly to throw out the “maudits étrangers” (damned foreigners). Yet, ironically, many developing countries do not want their citizens back. When France refused to renew work permits for 320,000 Algerians whose cards expired last year, Algeria threatened to take commercial revenge if they were deported.

In more cases than not, the migrants do not wish to go home either. Two years ago, France instituted a policy of offering foreign workers a free plane ticket out and 10,000 francs (then worth about $2,500), but so far only 55,000 have taken advantage of that official largesse. Rootless and unwanted, the continent’s immigrant population has been called the European Community’s “10th country” as well as its “ticking time bomb.”

In Britain, where MP Enoch Powell’s racist arias had long warned that “rivers of blood” would flow if the immigration portals weren’t slammed shut, the Notting Hill Gate race riots which erupted in 1976, leaving 456 injured, seemed to confirm the worst

fears. There is little doubt that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s pianissimo humming of the same tune last summer helped to win her the key to 10 Downing Street. And despite the fact that the number of immigrants admitted to Britain was already down by 25 per cent in the past year, this fall the Thatcher government will unveil a revised set of immigration controls. They are openly aimed at reducing Britain’s foreign population without incurring the wrath of the European Court of Human Rights.

The Commons’ commission for racial equality has already confronted new Home Secretary William Whitelaw with a demand for an inquiry into possible racial bias in the immigration service—a result of February’s revelation that thousands of Indian women entering Britain as brides were being forced to submit to “virginity tests.” Indeed, it is the fear of similar breaches of human rights that prompted 2,000 intellectuals to take to the streets of Paris to protest the French government’s new anti-immigrant proposals. Not only do the laws carry the seeds for massive expulsions, they open the way for legalizing such practices as holding deportees incommunicado in a Marseilles warehouse before shipping them out.

“The crisis is reawakening our old demons,” read their manifesto. “France, in becoming racist, is not mastering the crisis—it is dishonoring itself.” As some pointed out, the land of liberté, égalité, fraternité stood in danger of tarnishing its self-touted tradition as a political haven. Under the new laws, some of its most celebrated citizens—including the painters Marc Chagall and Amedeo Modigliani—would never have been allowed through passport control.