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Tuesday, 18 December, 2001, 12:42 GMT
UN warns of migrants' miserable lot
Indian IT experts
Several countries are already importing specialist labour
The United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan has used the occasion of International Migrants Day to urge better treatment of migrants, and recognition for the contribution they make.

The Tampa
Hundreds of migrants spent days stranded off Australia's coast
The UN estimates that some 150 million people live outside their country of origin, many of whom experience discrimination, low wages and substandard living and working conditions, Mr Annan said.

Those attempting unauthorised migration, he said, were exposed to shocking levels of abuse and exploitation.

Migration has become a burning political issue in recent years.

While western governments have often sought favour with their electorates with pledges to clamp down on illegal immigrants, increasingly they accept that ever declining populations need to be boosted with foreigners.

Tough love

Australia has already come under United Nations fire this year for its treatment of illegal immigrants. Canberra's regime for handling illegal arrivals is widely deemed to be one of the toughest in the world.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan
Kofi Annan: Shocking conditions
Illegal immigrants are automatically detained in one of six prison-like centres spread across the country while their applications are examined, a process which can take up to five years.

Unrest has broken out on several occasions at the detention centres. In the most recent incident at the Woomera camp in South Australia - on Migrants' Day itself - detainees demanding visas set alight buildings and pelted staff and firefighters with rocks.

But Prime Minister John Howard's tough stance on immigration has earned him points among his electorate.

His refusal to allow the Tampa, a Norwegian cargo ship packed with asylum seekers to dock may have earned him stinging criticism abroad, but the incident coincided with a resurgence in his popularity culminating in his recent general election win.

Manpower

But faced with the potentially disastrous economic consequences of a low birth rate and a declining population, many countries are reviewing their immigration policies with a view to allowing more people in.

Rita Suessmuth presents the report to Interior Minister Otto Schilly
Germany's immigration report was seen as seismic
The UN estimates that the German population, for instance, will decline by 20 million over the next fifty years.

In light of such gloomy prognoses, a bill has just been put before the German parliament recommending controlled immigration of thousands more people annually - particularly those with IT and scientific skills.

It has been hailed as a revolution in Western European thinking.

But the bill has yet to be cleared by parliament, and observers say looming general elections have made the two leading parties increasingly anxious to soothe the fears of nervous voters.

"We are going backwards. The decisions we have to make are much too near to our election campaign," said the architect of the proposals, Rita Suessmuth.

"With a high rate of unemployment, political parties are very shy."

Suspicious minds

The anti-US attacks of 11 September have also taken their toll on attitudes towards immigration, with migrants falling under increasing suspicion.

Infrared surveillance at the Mexican-US border
The US has stepped up its border control since 11 September
Mexican President Vicente Fox came to power promising to resolve the issue of four million illegal Mexicans currently working in the United States, who currently have no rights.

Mr Fox had even reached broad agreement with Washington on a number of proposals that would have eventually provided them with legal status.

But that was August, and the atmosphere in the US since the attacks has meant that any agreement is further away than ever.

See also:

31 Oct 01 | Americas
US to bar 'terrorist' immigrants
04 Jul 01 | Europe
Germany's immigration revolution
06 Feb 01 | Europe
Asylum seekers: Europe's dilemma
21 Mar 00 | World
Greying West 'needs immigrants'
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