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Annan Pleads for EU to Keep its Doors Open to Immigrants

EU Business, Jan. 29

UN chief Kofi Annan on Thursday delivered a powerful plea for the European Union to keep its doors open to immigrants, both for its own benefit and for that of the world’s poor and oppressed.

In a speech to the European Parliament accepting the assembly’s annual Sakharov human rights prize on behalf of the UN, Annan highlighted the fears of some critics who argue that an insular EU is erecting a “Fortress Europe”.

But the speech was not warmly welcomed by all EU lawmakers, with some conservative MEPs notably refusing to join in a prolonged standing ovation given to Annan at the end.

The UN secretary-general delivered a blunt message that an ageing Europe needs immigrants, and needs to continue to welcome refugees, now more than ever.

“The message is clear. Migrants need Europe. But Europe also needs migrants,” he said to ringing applause which the minority of conservatives refused to join in.

“A closed Europe would be a meaner, poorer, weaker, older Europe. An open Europe will be a fairer, richer, stronger, younger Europe — provided you manage migration well,” he added.

Annan noted that the populations of EU member states are getting smaller and older as birth rates decline and people live longer.

Without immigration, he said, the population of the soon-to-be 25 member states of the EU — 452 million — would drop to under 400 million people by 2050. Austria, Germany, Greece and Italy risk seeing their populations drop by around a quarter.

“Were this to happen, jobs would go unfilled and services undelivered. Your economies would shrink and societies could stagnate,” Annan said.

“There is no simple solution to this problem. But immigration is inevitably an important part of the solution.”

The UN chief also addressed head-on anxiety in Europe about growing numbers of refugees, an issue that the EU has been trying for years to tackle by negotiating a common policy on asylum.

“People migrate today for the same reasons that tens of millions of Europeans once left your shores — they flee war or oppression, or they leave in search of a better life in a new land,” he said.

“Migrants are part of the solution, not part of the problem. They should not be made the scapegoats for a vast array of social ills.”

The EU’s increasingly restrictive immigration policies have also drawn criticism from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which has taken issue with a new law on family reunification.

The European Parliament has taken member states to court over the law passed last February, which among other conditions requires immigrants’ children to sit a test to prove their knowledge of Europe.

Asked at a press conference about the frosty reception his speech drew from some MEPs, Annan said: “I did not see the comments from the members as rejecting my views as such.”

He said he shared the view that promoting development in poorer countries was crucial “so they (migrants) can make a decent life in their own country and so don’t feel the need to move on”.

For his part, European Parliament president Pat Cox said the overwhelming majority of MEPs had given Annan “the warmest of welcomes”.

“You cannot please all of the people all of the time,” he added.

Text and Picture Copyright © 2004 AFP.