Immigration: The day the immigrants went away
1 March 2010
On the initiative of several advocacy groups in France, Italy, Spain and Greece, immigrant workers are being encouraged to avoid buying anything on 1st March. The protest, which has been baptized "A day without us," aims to promote awareness of the important role played by foreigners in our societies, at a time when controversy on the issue of immigration policy has come to the fore in several countries.
"Imagine a Monday with empty metro trains, when work grinds to a halt on building sites, and in restaurants where chefs have downed tools. Imagine universities without professors, and meetings that cannot go ahead because staff have stayed at home. Imagine a day where 10% companies have to do without the boss. Impossible? That is exactly what would happen if immigrants and their descendants" – close to 12% of the French population – "stopped working for one day," notes Le Point.
Launched by the "24 heures sans nous" (24 hours Without Us) collective, the day of action has been scheduled for 1st March in order to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the coming into force of France's Ceseda legislation on the entry, residency, and visa entitlements of foreigners. As the Parisian weekly explains, "the goal is to prove that immigrants are not a burden, but a necessity for the efficient running of the country." Another French news website Rue89 presents profiles of Peggy Derder, Nadir Dendoune and Nadia Lamarkbi, the three pioneers of the movement, which was inspired by a similar protest in the United States: "on 1st May, 2006, anyone who felt they were concerned by the issue of migration in the country was asked to stop work and not to buy or sell anything." The young activists also describe how they successfully built up support for the campaign on Facebook.
System shut down
In Italy, Il Sole 24 Ore notes that in coordinating "simultaneous protests in France, Spain, Greece and Italy," the movement "has broken new ground in Europe." The Italian daily is also keen to emphasize that the day of action is "technically not a strike," but "a boycott of work and shopping" accompanied by "sit-ins and demonstrations." Born in France, the "revolution in yellow (the official colour for the day of action) has come to Italy," which is home "five million foreigners." As La Repubblica reports, it has garnered strong popular support with "50,000 followers on Facebook, 60 local committees and backing from several major NGOs including Amnesty International." Quoted by the Roman daily, one of the organizers of the Italian protest insists that "without immigrants there would be an economic black-out," in the country, especially in the "building industry, where as many as 50% of workers are foreigners. Work on construction sites would come to an unexpected halt. Thereafter, stoppages would spread to the textiles, manufacturing and food processing sectors. Then it would paralyze agriculture, where most of the work of harvesting is done by seasonal migrant workers, and slaughterhouses, where more than half the workers are foreigners. In towns and cities, restaurants, hotels and pizzerias would have to close. Families would panic when forced to cope without baby sitters, nannies and maids." Finally, the national health care system, which employs tens of thousands of people, would have to shut down. Il Giornale highlights the "Europe-wide scope" of the initiative, and the fact that it has the support of most of the left-wing parties and unions in Italy, while La Stampa reports that plans are underway to "introduce the protest in Belgium and the United Kingdom."
Public opinion divided
Immigrants face difficult conditions in most European countries, but nowhere are they worse than in Greece – where they represent 9% of the population – and where the economy has been severely affected by the crisis. "It is very hard to be an immigrant… even when you have Greek nationality," explains Ta Nea in its report, which quotes "a young Ukrainian woman married to a Greek who has lived in the country for the last ten years, but has been unable to find work because she is viewed as a foreigner. 'We won't spend a euro for an entire day, and that will show the Greeks how important we are to the economy,'" insists one of the Greek demonstration organizers in the columns of the daily.
In a comment piece for Il Sole 24 Ore, Khaled Fouad Allam remarks that the movement's organisers "aim to highlight the contradiction between fear of foreigners and their usefulness for the economy" to bring about a change "in public opinion which is divided on the issue of immigration." However, the Algerian sociologist argues that they should also encourage wary Europeans "to look beyond their own continent to the United States," which "has absorbed non-European populations – from Arabic countries, Africa, and Asia – without a major shift towards Arab, African or Asian culture. No doubt the European culture of tomorrow will continue to be marked by Mozart, just as it will be by rap music and the literary works of new minorities. As for the debate on the protest movement, I would have preferred a greater emphasis on the narration of problems faced by immigrant communities; strikes come and go, but literature will have a more lasting impact in our troubled era."