Europe's Demographics Signal New Need for Migrant Labor Series: SPECIAL REPORT. EUROPE'S IMMIGRANTS. Stemming Surge from South. A Series of Articles All Appearing Today

Article excerpt

DOES Europe need more immigrants?

Officially most European countries have narrowed the means of legal immigration since the early 1970s, when the oil shocks hit the continent's industries and began replacing foreign-worker programs with unemployment lines.

Since then, several countries have tried to close the door on all but the beneficiaries of family reunification provisions. Although Switzerland has continued accepting immigrants to keep its industries, hotels, and farms running, France has drastically reduced its numbers of legal immigrants. Germany even chalked up high net emigration figures - mostly Turks returning home - before the opening of Eastern Europe and the reunification of Germany.

Yet even as polls show most Europeans believe there are too many immigrants in their countries, and as extreme right-wing political parties espousing anti-immigration rhetoric gain increasing attention, some economists are suggesting Europe faces a demographic deficit - and an acute shortage of certain kinds of workers - that will again make immigration programs necessary.

Countries like Belgium and Austria already face population declines, Spain will begin declining in this decade, and Italy has a fertility rate (1.7) well below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman. The former West Germany was expected to shrink by nearly one-quarter over the next four decades before reunification muddied the German picture. France's population would be nearing decline if not for a high birth rate among its immigrant population.

Some of Europe's labor needs are being filled by "clandestine" or illegal immigrants and by immigrants who have come to Europe as political refugees. In recent years, such annual immigration to France, for example, is estimated to have topped 100,000.

But some economists and other officials are calling for defined immigration policies, more along the lines of Canadian or Australian policy, so that governments can take an active role in determining who they take in.

Austria is a case in point. The government will soon propose a new program calling for the legal immigration of up to 30,000 people a year.

"It is clear that we need people," says Manfred Matzka, the Austrian Interior Ministry's director for immigration and asylum issues. "The question before us is whether we should fill that need with whoever comes, or with people we need and who are planned for?"

With the country's population declining by about 15,000 a year, Dr. Matzka says the additional workers would allow Austria to "secure a slight expansion of the economy." Immigration candidates would apply in their countries and would be accepted according to a set of priorities based on country of origin, profession, and age.

Legal immigrants would be assured of housing, language courses, and job training, says Matzka, making integration an integral part of the new program.

"In Europe, there have been two opposite models for immigration: The Swedish model, where everything was planned and the government said up front and from the beginning they would spend money to make immigration work; and the Italian, where for a long time anyone was allowed to come in, but then nothing was done for him," Matzka says. …