Immigration Experiences and National Policy Responses

Postcolonial, Labour, and Asylum Migrants in North-Western Europe

Among the first immigrants that European countries witnessed in modern times were members of the colonial middle classes who came to the “motherland” to work or to study. Their numbers grew considerably when the colonies gained independence. These members of the middle classes felt uneasy under their postcolonial governments or expected a more secure future upon resettling in Europe. Although at some point these European countries of destination imposed restrictions on such resettlement, it was generally understood that these migrants belonged to the nation and that the nation had a moral obligation towards them. Even though migrants still arrive from these countries as family migrants today, postcolonial migration was predominantly from the 1950s to the late 1970s.

In the 1960s, employers in countries including Belgium, France, Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands recruited labour from abroad. Unskilled and semiskilled workers were brought in for the service industry, construction, and manufacturing to meet the growing demands of the booming economies. At the same time, such jobs lost their attraction to native workers, whose educational levels were on the rise. The intention was to hire such workers on a temporary basis. With the exception of France, governments had no ambition to develop settlement policies (Martin and Miller 1980, 316). The term “guest worker” was used to underline this stance. Once demand for guest workers ebbed as a result of the recession following the 1973 oil crisis, facts and conceptions took diverging paths. Further recruitment was halted—in Germany by law—and the guest workers' return home seemed a logical consequence of the economic downturn. Yet a large share remained. Despite the recession, demand for their work remained sizeable (ibid., 320; Castles 1986, 765). Moreover, these workers themselves preferred to stay, as their countries of origin likewise were going through hard times. For their part, “host” governments were unable or unwilling to force their erstwhile guests to go home. Welfare arrangements and entitlements were an additional disincentive for return migration. As a consequence, many guest workers became immigrants. Because this gave cause for spouses and children to join them, the end of the guest worker era actually meant the beginning of substantially larger migration flows. As a rule, governments did not applaud this ongoing migration of family members, but their ability to curb arrivals was restricted by humanitarian, economic, and legal obligations.

The example of the Netherlands illustrates this. Some 74,000 Moroccan and Turkish workers lived in this country in 1973, but ethnic communities ten times this size arose over the next 40 years (Doomernik 2011, 73). In Germany the rise was less steep. While in 1973 the country had 910,000 Turkish inhabitants, in 2012 some 3 million German residents had a Turkish background[1].

Over time, some governments acknowledged that continuing migration produced ongoing challenges in terms of integrating the newcomers into mainstream society. In no small part, this was a result of the nature of the recruitment policies, as they had been biased towards poorly educated migrants (Castles 1986, 773). The bias towards those with little formal education also put migrants' children in a disadvantaged position in education and, subsequently, the labour market (Crul and Doomernik 2003). This situation, in conjunction with an increased politicization of migration, brought about a growing interweaving of migration controls and integration requirements in countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands (from the late 1990s on). Permanent residence was made conditional on the acquisition of language proficiency and knowledge of the host country's law and society. Even though this touches all non-EU citizens, these measures were designed to target immigrants from former guest worker countries of origin. In general it can be observed that “immigration”, if not directly serving the interests of the receiving states, had taken on a negative connotation in public discourse.

During the 1990s, migration from the former guest workers' countries became overshadowed—in numbers and in popular perceptions—by the arrival of large numbers of asylum seekers and refugees. In two senses this arrival resulted from the end of the Cold War. First, restrictions were removed on mobility from Eastern Europe to the rest of the world. Second, the end of the Cold War indirectly caused the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. The former led to massive displacement and refugee movements. Many Bosnians ended up seeking security in Western Europe, especially in Germany, where they were given temporary protection. By 2005 the largest Bosnian populations in Western Europe were found in Austria, Denmark, Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands (Valenta and Ramet 2011, 4). Asylum migration from the fringes of the Soviet Union, especially the Caucasus, also became significant, as did flows from Romania, Turkey, Iraq, Afghanistan, and from African states tormented by civil war and lawlessness (Castles et al. 2014, 228). These asylum seekers did not end up more or less randomly distributed among European states. They sought refuge predominantly in North-Western Europe, and within this region first and foremost in Germany. Already in 1992 the German parliament saw itself forced to alter the constitution in order to severely curtail access for asylum claimants. The effect was a drop in overall numbers, yet it also created considerable spill-over of asylum requests into neighbouring states (Grutters 2003, 165). This set in motion a dynamic by which countries sought to avoid being more attractive than others to asylum seekers, while also creating impetus for the integrated European approach that became part of the 1997 Amsterdam Treaty. Joint policies were to take effect from May 2004 at the latest.

Meanwhile two further developments took on prominence. Firstly, among policymakers a new consensus gradually emerged about the demographic and economic contributions that selective labour migration might bring. In 2000, the German chancellor proposed seeking to attract information technology (IT) specialists by means of a “green card” (Doomernik et al. 2009). The scheme was unsuccessful, but the change in rhetoric did have impact. The German government established an expert committee to rethink the hitherto dogmatic position against significant labour immigration. In other countries, such as the UK, France, and the Netherlands, soon thereafter similar schemes were devised, all geared towards attracting skilled foreign workers (ibid.). Some measured skill levels using the proxy of a high previous income (as did the UK); others applied human capital endowment measures (e.g., a university degree was used by France and the Netherlands). At the European level, too, this ambition found support and resulted in the joint Blue Card programme.

The second key development was the increasing dominance of irregular migration as a public issue. Here, North-Western Europe faced a particular challenge.

These countries had long been characterized by inclusive welfare systems that were also open to non-nationals, alongside highly regulated labour markets in which informal labour was outlawed. This implied relative closure to immigrants, whose contribution to the economy could not be guaranteed a priori. Restrictions, however, led to situations in which an alien, for instance, upon a failed asylum request, ended up without any state support, which is diametrically opposed to the essence of the welfare state. In order to avoid such paradoxical and politically troublesome situations, these states tended to devise measures against unsolicited arrivals. At the same time, lack of legal opportunities for unskilled immigrant workers encouraged illegal migration and unwarranted asylum requests. States in North-Western Europe tended to respond with increased detention of aliens and forced return measures (Doomernik and Jandl 2008).

  • [1] Data from Lederer (1997, 47) and Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge (2012, 138).
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