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Opinion

Is multiculturalism good for Europe?

Despite its perceived failure, multiculturalism could offer the European Union the best chance to integrate migrants.

Last updated: 02 Jan 2014 10:22
Kait Bolongaro

Kait Bolongaro is a journalist, photographer and a Master's student of Journalism and Political Science. Her research interests include politics, environmental issues, migration and education.
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Anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise, especially in the UK [AP]

On January 1, long-standing work visa requirements for Bulgarian and Romanian citizens should have been lifted in eight other European Union countries. Although the two newest members joined the bloc in 2007, many countries, including the United Kingdom, France and Germany, have kept restrictions for Bulgarians and Romanians, out of fear of mass-immigration.

While the 2008 financial crisis dimmed EU fervour across Europe, the UK has turned particularly Eurosceptic. The British parliament rushed through a bill to limit unemployment benefits for EU citizens before January 1. Under the new regulations, non-British nationals will have to wait three months before receiving government aid in an attempt to curb so-called benefit tourism: When EU citizens move to another member state solely to profit from government aid. There is even a proposal to introduce a quota of 75,000 newcomers per year for EU migrants.

Many of these fears stem from 2004, when 500,000 Poles emigrated to Britain, along with thousands of others from the eight new Eastern European members. Prime Minister David Cameron called for an overhaul to the Freedom of Movement, which currently allows EU citizens to move to any country in the union. He also hinted that Britain might veto new applications for membership into the bloc.

Media in other wealthy European nations have been quick to speculate on a large influx of migrants and the strain they will put on government services and the economy, promoting the image of a Bulgarian or Romanian boogeyman eager to take advantage of generous social security systems. Media coverage and government policies show strong undertones of intolerance with clear intentions of preventing "undesirable" migration.

Anti-migrant rhetoric is based on myth rather than fact. A recent study commissioned by the European Commission disproved the benefit tourism theory. Researchers found that not only did few migrants report engaging in benefit tourism, the number of jobless EU migrants claiming benefits was negligible at less than 5 percent in most countries surveyed. Most new arrivals came for work or family related purposes.

Price of Passage Europe [Al Jazeera]

However, the mounting fear of migrants is hurting non-European Union citizens most. In 2011, 65 percent of Europeans polled by Ipsos agreed that there were too many immigrants in their countries. Visa requirements and nationalisation laws have tightened, making it more difficult to settle in Europe despite findings that the continent and its economies are actually benefiting from immigrants - particularly Britain.

There is also the ever-pressing need to assist refugees and asylum seekers, yet European countries are hesitant to accept refugees in even the direst circumstances. More migrants arrive every day, escaping conflicts in Syria, Somalia, and other countries. Lampedusa, the small Italian island 167 kms from Tunisia, is a key point of entry from North Africa. It has struggled to cope with the increasing numbers and has asked other EU nations for help. Italy is currently under threat of legal action from the European Commission over its maltreatment of migrants.

With increasing pressure from immigration, there has been a recent rise of right wing political parties around Europe. Such entities foster a hostile environment for would-be migrants of all backgrounds by peddling a type of exclusive banal nationalism to the populous that creates exclusive groups of us versus them.

According to the United Nations Department of Economics and Social Affairs, there are over 232 million international migrants in the world, the most in recorded history. Europe remains the most popular destination with 72 million people arriving. When combined with globalisation and transnationalism, it has become nearly impossible to limit migration. Despite strict regulations, migrants will come via authorised or unauthorised channels.

There has been a big debate in the European Union about how to best integrate migrants pitting assimilationism and multiculturalism against one another. Are immigrants expected to rescind the cultural traditions of their homeland and accept the values of their adopted country to be considered a good citizen? Or are immigrants encouraged to keep their cultural traditions from their homeland while embracing values of diversity and mutual respect for different cultures?

European state leaders have described multiculturalism as a failed policy. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy have all said that the multicultural approach had failed to integrate migrants. The Dutch, Danes and Spaniards are also becoming multicultural-sceptic. However, multicultural policies may be exactly what European Union countries need.

The policy has proven successful in other immigrant countries particularly in New Zealand and Canada. New Zealand's history has been defined by waves of migration. From the Maori, to the British, to the newest arrivals from Asia, it is difficult to define who is a New Zealander. In fact, it is the government's intention to create a rainbow nation of mixed origins where diversity is valued.

Canada remains the best example of multiculturalism's success. The concept has been enshrined into the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms ensuring that the traditions of all cultures are weaved into the broader Canadian social fabric. The policy is popular among Canadians: nearly half the population identifies "multiculturalism" as a Canadian value. Clearly, it has become part of the Canadian national identity and a cohesive element in such a diverse country.

If Canada and New Zealand can successfully implement multicultural policies, so can countries in the European Union. So far, most European efforts of multiculturalism have been quickly thrown out as ineffective after a short trial period. Multiculturalism is a long-term project that takes time to show results. It's certain that in an era of mass-migration and more diverse societies, Europe needs more multiculturalism, not less. 

Kait Bolongaro is a journalist, photographer and a Master's student of Journalism and Political Science. Her research interests include politics, environmental issues, migration and education.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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Al Jazeera
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