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Top 10 of 2009 - Issue #4: What the Recession Wasn't

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Top 10 of 2009 - Issue #4: What the Recession Wasn't

Fewer Eastern Europeans arrived in the United Kingdom this year, but hundreds of thousands remain.

As the severity of the recession became apparent late last year, some began to speculate that increasing unemployment could prompt thousands of immigrants to head home and citizens of hard-hit countries to assault immigrants for taking "their" jobs and causing other problems.

Yet no country in 2009 has seen a mass exodus of immigrants due to the recession. Instead, most immigrants have stayed put.

And while politicians have said native workers need to have the first shot at jobs and nationalist parties gained more seats in European Parliament elections, immigrants have not been systematically attacked. Italy remains notable, however, for politically capitalizing on anti-immigrant sentiment.

As noted in Issue #1: The Recession's Impact on Immigrants, the United Kingdom and Ireland have seen fewer Eastern Europeans arrive in the last year and a noteworthy increase in the number of Eastern Europeans going home. However, large Eastern European populations remain in both countries.

In the United States, the size of the Mexican immigrant population decreased by about 200,000 between mid-2008 and mid-2009, but nearly 12 million Mexicans have not gone home. Unlike Eastern Europeans, many Mexican immigrants came illegally and cannot easily return when economic conditions improve.

In addition, Mexicans know that the recession and swine flu fears from last spring have decimated the Mexican economy and that the country's war against drug gangs has made numerous areas unsafe.

More evidence comes from countries with pay-to-go programs that provide plane tickets and additional financial incentives to immigrants who participate. Spain and the Czech Republic have instituted such programs, but neither has reached its expected goal thus far (see Issue #3: Buyer's Remorse on Immigration Continues).

Even as tensions between natives and immigrants rose in some places, there were no xenophobic attacks in 2009 that came close to the deadly ones in South Africa in May 2008 that displaced thousands. Tensions in South Africa remain, however. In November, 3,000 foreigners, including refugees and asylum seekers from Zimbabwe, were driven from their shacks in a farming community northeast of Cape Town.

One of the worst incidents this year took place in June in Belfast, Northern Ireland, when over 100 Romanian immigrants fled their homes after a number of men broke in and threatened to kill them. Nearly all the Romanians flew home at the expense of the government of Northern Ireland. Some eventually returned to Belfast.

In Switzerland, where the nationalist Swiss People's Party has gained popularity in recent years, few expected a referendum banning the construction of minarets to pass in late November. But voters turned out in larger-than-usual numbers and overwhelmingly supported it, disappointing the Swiss government and European leaders and stunning Switzerland's Muslim community, which says the decision will undermine fragile relations.

With Italy's nationalist Northern League part of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's coalition government, Italy has steadily pursued anti-immigrant policies over the last 18 months. In July, the Italian legislature passed a sweeping law that makes illegal immigration a crime, with a fine of between 5,000 euros and 10,000 euros (US$7,250 to US$14,500), and housing an unauthorized immigrant punishable with jail time. Under the law, the government can detain unauthorized immigrants for up to six months, up from the previous two months.

A controversial provision that the Northern League championed allows small citizen groups to patrol for public order offenses. Also, parents seeking to register a baby's birth in Italy must show they are legal residents, which some critics have said could lead to an "invisible generation."

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