Home History — 5. The doors close (Final history page)

History – 1973-2006

The doors close

During the past thirty years migration has become steadily more difficult — particularly for people in developing countries wanting to enter Europe.

In Europe, opposition to the arrival of large numbers of immigrants had already been growing in the late 1960s. This had caused the UK, for example, to cut back the number of people who could come from the British Commonwealth. But it was the recession following the oil shock of 1973 that signaled a more general reversal across Europe; all governments effectively closed the doors to further labour immigration and expected guest workers to leave.

These workers had, however, by now put down roots and preferred to stay. Even so, most governments shied away from the punitive measures it would have taken to expel them and admitted family members of existing immigrants. Meanwhile, however, migrants had also started to choose from a wider range of destinations, including Italy and other countries of southern Europe. The economic stimulus of joining the European Community also increased the attractions of Greece, Portugal and Spain.

From the mid-1980s to the present day the immigration debate in Europe and elsewhere has been dominated by asylum seekers, refugees and illegal immigrants. This has been a period of political upheaval, particularly in Eastern Europe during and after the collapse of communism. Eastern Europeans, with more freedom to travel, started to join the thousands of people fleeing conflict elsewhere in the world and sought asylum in Western Europe. But with the options for legal immigration cut off others who formerly might have traveled as contract workers were also deflected to the 'asylum door'.

Over the period 1989-98, over four million people applied for asylum in Europe, of whom 43% came from elsewhere in Europe, 35% from Asia and 19% from Africa. As the pressure grew, however, Western European governments and others also started to tighten up on asylum. With this door also closing, more people tried to enter illegally, either traveling on their own initiative or with the help of smugglers.

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Crossing to the Canary Islands

Desperate migrants cross the Atlantic in flimsy boats from Africa to the Canary Islands.
Photo: UNHCR/A. Rodríguez