Panel mulls European migration issues

Friday, March 13, 2009

Immigrants are in limbo: They reside in one place but their cultural background is from another. In his first public appearance since becoming a visiting professor at the Watson Institute for International Studies, Alfred Gusenbauer discussed the social, ethnic and political struggles immigrants face.

Gusenbauer, a former chancellor of Austria, was part of a discussion panel organized by the International Relations Departmental Undergraduate Group that drew an international crowd of around 40 students and faculty members. Nathalie Etoke-Ilda, visiting assistant professor of French studies and Jessaca Leinaweaver, assistant professor of anthropology, joined him in exploring the nature and effects of migration in Europe.

Gusenbauer began by explaining the Austrian experience, which he said involved waves of migration hitting the country due to “political conflict in the neighborhood” such as the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and wars in the Balkans in the 1990s. Workers who came from the former Yugoslavia and Turkey also migrated to Austria in search of opportunities to improve their lives.

“Austria receives 80,000 migrants annually,” Gusenbuaer said. “This number has been stable over the years.”

Gusenbauer said that regardless of the changes in immigration policies, reducing the number of people who enter the country is practically impossible.

“Whatever immigration policies you apply,” he said, “the size stays the same.”

According to Gusenbauer, conflicts among migrants arise from the disadvantages that descendants of immigrants face. He said the “younger generation does not have the same economical perception” as their parents’ generation had. Additionally, he said, most do not get a professional education or achieve the necessary qualifications to excel in the working world. For many children of immigrants, education often ends at 15, he said.

“They are gathering in gangs and staying among each other and exercising some type of violence,” Gusenbauer said.

Etoke-Ilda elaborated on this subject, referencing the riots that occurred in the Parisian suburbs in 2005. The mostly Muslim protests were an attempt to overcome the differentiation of “what is French and what is not,” she said. The protestors were French citizens with French passports, yet they are often treated as foreigners, she said, adding that the values of liberty, fraternity and equality are not applied to immigrant populations.

“They feel that ‘this is my country as much as it’s yours,'” Etoke-Ilda said.

Etoke-Ilda’s discussion of the Parisian riots brought up the topic of political Islam in Europe. Gusenbauer said that sometimes the “import of political Islam” brings along the “political conflict of the Middle East into the center of Europe.” The Austrian government reached an agreement with representatives of the Islamic community to limit the influence of leaders to the religious sphere and not the political one, he said.

In addition, Gusenbauer explained that to reduce conflicts and tension it was important that children entered the educational system early. The government has imposed a new law that requires all children between the ages of 4 and 5 to go to kindergarten, he said. The law passed last year and it will come into effect this coming fall.

“The law affects all children,” he said. “We have to treat everybody equally.”

Gusenbauer also argued that within the European Union, some national leaders are trying to establish free migration. New EU member nations have more limits on free movement across national lines, but by 2011, these will cease to exist, he said. Even so, each country would still have distinct policies to control legal and illegal migration.

Leinaweaver illustrated the anthropological aspect of this statement. She mentioned that it was shocking to see that, although the European Union was able to “agree on the flow of money and good across borders,” agreeing on the “flow of humans” was almost impossible.

The panel ended with a question-and-answer session, in which several students with international backgrounds brought up their concerns. Some of the questions included what national identity is, whether or not immigrants threaten it and why social tensions continue to exist.

Though the panelists had different points of view, they all agreed that existing social norms cause conflicts, and that something has to change with these attitudes in order for true integration to occur.

“We are living in societies with increasing social tensions, an increasing gap within the wealth of the society and more and more people coming under stress,” Gusenbauer said. “But, we can still win this struggle.”

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