Consider this snapshot of a European August: The bridge across the river Neisse connecting Zgorzelec, a run-down Polish village, to the German town of Gorlitz is, for thousands, a magical road to a land of plenty. Every day, scores of men and women walk to the middle of the bridge, face the German side and yell, "Asylum!" A minute later, they are picked up by German guards, given a hot meal, and sent to one of dozens of immigrant reception camps.
Or picture the scene at the crowded police headquarters on Paris' Ile de la Cite. Tempers flare as Czechs, Sri Lankans, and Senegalese jostle to get visas. On a recent morning, guards intervened three times to restrain frustrated visa-seekers screaming at officials. With unemployment at a record 2.7 million, France is trying to stem the tide of jobseekers--yet they still come. "It's always been bad but never this bad," says one exhausted Czech immigrant.
EITHER/OR. Europe's patience toward immigrants is stretched thin. But this might only be the beginning. As Western leaders wrestle with questions of aid to the rapidly disintegrating Soviet empire, a potentially explosive problem hovers over their agenda: a mass migration out of the crisis-ridden Soviet Union and Eastern Europe that could threaten the prosperity of the 12-nation European Community. EC officials had already estimated last March that President Mikhail Gorbachev's moves to give all Soviet citizens the freedom to travel abroad would result in an outflow of 3 million to 4 million Soviets by the middle of the decade.
Now, the rapid breakdown of central government control and economic uncertainty could lead to a tidal wave of emigration, say European immigration specialists. That could dwarf the current outflows from collapsing Albania and warring Yugoslavia (page 59 31 ). It's no surprise that the nations most loudly calling for aid for the Soviet Union--Germany and Italy--are the two countries most exposed to waves of unwanted immigrants. "We have the dilemma of either having an invasion or trying to keep the people where they are," says Italian industrialist Carlo De Benedetti.
Coping with immigration is now one of the toughest and most important issues facing the EC. Members must decide soon what to do with millions of immigrants already inside their borders. And there are now millions more have-nots clamoring for entry. If leaders don't act quickly, the bright future Europe has mapped out for itself could be stalled. Guido Bolaffi, head of immigration policy at the Italian Foreign Ministry, believes the new Europe could be "stopped in its tracks by poor emigrants just because we can't produce a common, modern policy to deal with it."
While the U. S. is a nation of immigrants, the Old World has an entirely different attitude. The poorer, southern half of Europe is used to seeing emigrants leave. In the richer north, millions of non-Europeans who streamed into Europe's car plants and steel mills in the 1970s and `80s were never treated as citizens. European national identity--what it means to be an Italian, a German, or a Spaniard--is still closely linked to race and religion. As the scramble for jobs and housing throughout Europe intensifies, the risks of racist and religious backlash run high.
In fact, flows of migration into a wealthy Europe over the next few years will have "no precedents in the history of mankind," states the Bank of Italy in a recent study. The U. N. and World Bank project that population growth along the Mediterranean's southern shore will zoom by as much as 180 million over the next three decades. And the number of working-age North Africans alone will more than double, from 97 million to 228 million. Meanwhile, the same age group in Europe will grow in the same period by a mere 4 million. Even so, the job market will have trouble absorbing the expected influx of jobseekers.
What's more, the wealth gap between the EC and its neighbors has never been so wide. In parts of Northern Italy, per capita income is over $25,000 a year, while in Tunisia, a big labor exporter only 150 miles from the Italian coast, it's barely $2,500. Now, add hundreds of thousands of jobseekers from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. "The U. S.-Mexican border used to be the world's hottest immigration flash point," says Italy's Bolaffi. "Now, it's Europe."
BUSY BORDER. Germany considers itself on the front line in the immigration battle. It's already overwhelmed by more than 1 million unemployed workers inherited from former East Germany last year. And because its constitution grants automatic entry to those claiming to flee persecution, the 700-mile-long eastern border is as porous as a sieve. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, more than 400,000 people from Eastern Europe and the Balkans have arrived, adding to a foreign population already topping 5 million. In the same period, 1.5 million ethnic Germans from the Soviet Union, Romania, Poland, and Hungary resettled in Germany. More than 40,000 others, warns Interior Minister Wolfgang Schauble, have slipped into Germany illegally since January. "Because of its location and prosperity," says Schauble, "Germany has become the target."
In France, the issue smolders like nowhere else, partly because it's destination of choice for nonwhite, non-Christian emigrants. The growing presence of North Africans is stoking resentment among unemployed French workers who blame the immigrants for their plight. Although the Socialist government has tightened visa requirements and other rules, there is unrelenting pressure from the right-wing opposition to go further. The far-right National Front, led by Jean-Marie Le Pen, who calls for deportation of foreigners, can now count on more than 10% of the electorate.
Italy's immigration problems are more recent, although no less dire than France's and Germany's. The exponential growth of its economy is the 1980s drew as many as 1 million foreigners, while lax border controls along the coast have added up to 400,000 clandestine immigrants. Some ritics polint a finger at the Vatican, since Catholic rows in the Philippines, Senegal, Ethiopia, and elsewhere run a kind of underground conduit to Italy. The Catholic Church, still a large though discreet force in Italian politics, opposes controls on immigrants.
In Italy's underdeveloped sdurth, Mafia grangs run veritable corvees of North Africfan field hands at harvest time. Others work for less than $25 a day in thousands of sweatshops in Naples that churn out counterfeit Gucci shoes, Christian Dior sunglasses, and Louis Vuitton leather goods to be hawked in European street markets.
Each facing political and fiscal crises at home, European governments have for the first time agreed to work together to harmonize immigration laws. They have little choice: The Schengen Accords, now signed by everyone except Britain and Denmark, call for barrier-free travel within the EC by 1993. That's essential for a real single market, but Schengen will also make it easy for illegal immigrants and asylum-seekers to travel from country to country within Europe. When EC ministers meet in October, they are likely, at the very least, to beef up border controls. The French and Italians would like to see an EC-wide quota system that would predetermine European labor needs each year.
GYPSY PLANES. All such proposals are bound to stir controversy. Humanitarians are quick to decry laws that would close doors to asylum-seekers. Powerful business interests, too, would balk. Europe's economies have thrived on illegal labor, particularly in construction and agriculture. As in the U. S., European consumers depend increasingly on poorly paid immigrants--domestic help, restaurant workers, and manual laborers--to keep prices low in the service sector.
Whatever the solution, solving the immigration problem will cost money, either at home or in aid to the countries whose people are fleeing. Italy's peripatetic Foreign Minister, Gianni De Michelis, wants European colleagues to pony up as much as 1.5% of total gross national product a year in new aid for the Mediterranean region to give would-be immigrants reason to stay put.
Similarly, the wealthy German state of North Rhineland-Westphalia set up a program last year to help reintegrate Yugoslavian refugees denied asylum in Germany. Some 3,200 Macedonian gypsies were offered plane tickets back home plus a lump sum of about $1,800 a family, and Germany has offered to finance kindergartens and job-training facilities in Yugoslavia. But now that Bonn has permitted asylum-seekers to work while waiting for official word, most prefer to stay half-free in affluent Germany rather than return to their poverty-ridden, troubled homelands. The aid-giving schemes may prove to be little more than a Band-Aid on an open wound.