After India, I was sent to summer school in Lausanne, Switzerland and had the opportunity to travel around Switzerland, Venice, Rome and Paris afterwards. I have never traveled to Europe in my own time, as I have always been on either conferences or business purposes – so this time it was an unexpected travel which I looked forward to.
Many have spoken about the many wonders of Europe, and after seeing the Colosseum in Rome and Eiffel in Paris, one can say that it is in fact true. However, one must also observe that it is not all gold and glory of the empire, as gold and glory will inevitably attract people from all kinds of origins. In Europe, what I have observed, is that a society that was once homogeneous, is now diverse – although I am not sure diversity is something the Europeans will consciously want to embrace.
Although I am only making this observation based on the few European countries that I’ve visited (Switzerland, Italy, France – and Germany in my earlier travels), I think it is safe to say that this was my first time seeing the issue of immigration in Europe, and why it worries them.
Why do people immigrate and what makes the recipient country welcomes them? For basic reasons, people simply look for a better life – a better job, a better education for their children, or in some extreme cases, just so they can stay alive and avoid death in their home country. European policymakers on the other hand, are receptive towards these immigrants (at first, to the least) because they needed people to fill up jobs in order to move forward their economy. The European ‘indigenous’ population were not making enough babies, so these immigrants quickly replaced the missing spots.
Long story short, it is not uncommon that I saw a lot of Turks in Germany, Eastern Europeans in Switzerland, South Asians in Venice and Rome, and nationalities of former French colonies from Africa and the Middle East in Paris. Not to forget the Chinese, since they seem to manage to settle everywhere.
This is not without problems, because immigrants, both legal and illegal, causes some level of uneasiness among the local population. The uneasiness can be as subtle as prejudicial stereotypes, but if it is undealt with, it can lead to anti-immigration terrorism acts such as the recent attack in Oslo, Norway.
I remember when I was in Paris a couple of weeks ago, long renowned as the city of love, the experience that I had was a bit different. I stayed in the suburbs of Paris where you can clearly see that basically Paris had a good side and a bad side. Paris above ground, the touristy area filled with Eiffel, Louvre, Champs-Élysées and Arc de Triomphe are exactly what you see in movies and magazines. What you don’t often see is Paris below ground and its suburbs, where it is dirty, often smelly, and you feel unsafe.
In the suburbs where I stayed, most of the people in the neighborhood are immigrants.
I am well aware that this is a subjective view on a touchy subject, but if a very short-term tourist like me can see the difference, I shudder to think what would the Parisians really think of them.
In their defense, a friend who is based in Lille, France commented that some immigrants who are in the high-skilled level workforce are very smart and talented, and they are quick to adapt to the French lifestyle and really contribute to the development of the economy. So not all immigrants are bad and create moral hazards on its social welfare.
I’m an immigrant myself, as I currently live in Singapore under a student pass. I am also well aware that some Singaporeans are sensitive about the immigration issue, as foreigners account for 40 percent of their population. However, I try my best to adapt to the Singaporean life, even though in my daily life I am isolated from the Singapore heartlands.
As globalization cuts its way through the barriers of nation-states, diaspora – the dispersion of people from their original homeland – is inevitable.
As a policymaker you have the task to manage foreign talent and your own local talent, not to mention the many ways that you try to assimilate the immigrants to the indigenous population so they will feel like they are not invaded by the newcomers. This is indeed one difficult task to embark on.