Is the world closing its doors?

Is the world closing its doors?
A man looks out towards the US from the Mexican side of the border fence that divides the two countries in San Diego.

The recent successes of the United Kingdom Independence Party cap a year which has seen an almost unprecedented wave of support for far-right agendas across the world. The rise in nationalism - especially evident in continental Europe - is now raising uncomfortable questions about whether countries are starting to close themselves off to immigrants. US Bureau Chief Jeremy Au Yong takes a look at four countries where anti-immigration sentiments are causing ripples.

IN AUSTRALIA: SAYING NO TO ASYLUM SEEKERS

Beneath an ominous sky, a small boat gets tossed about in a rough sea. Emblazoned across the image is a message in big red letters saying: "No Way. You will not make Australia home."

The ad, targeted at illegal immigrants who often arrive in Australia in small boats run by people smugglers, was released last week by the Australian government and is available in over a dozen languages.

Response to the poster has been decidedly mixed, unsurprising given the complexity of the immigration issue in Australia and the fact that the population is largely an immigrant one. Those who support it say it is time for Australians to put their foot down after years of being a target for Asian asylum seekers. Opponents decry the ad as being inhumane.

From the rise and subsequent falls of anti-immigration parties like Ms Pauline Hanson's One Nation and the Australians Against Further Immigration party, the country's politics has been known to endure occasional bouts of far-right nationalism.

This time, however, there seems to be some support for a harder line from its two largest parties. During the election campaign last year, both eventual Prime Minister Tony Abbott and the man he defeated, Mr Kevin Rudd, promised tougher measures on asylum seekers.

And while the angst has largely been targeted at illegal immigrants, there have been signs that Australians are also turning against legal ones. A 2012 survey found that some 50 per cent of Australians believe the country has too many people.

IN FRANCE: WORRY OVER FAR-RIGHT GAINS

As France's mainstream parties continued to be embroiled in scandal and feuds, a long ignored famously anti-immigration party is chalking up eye-opening gains.

France's National Front trumped all other parties in the country at the European Parliament elections in May and it won seats in the French Senate for the first time last month.

Recent polls also show its leader, Ms Marine Le Pen, would beat President Francois Hollande in a straight fight.

The far-right party's policies are a cause of concern for many who do not believe it has left its fascist past.

For instance, the party wants to drastically reduce legal immigration from 200,000 a year to 10,000. It also rejects the policy of family unification - which allows relatives of legal immigrants to join them in France - and wants all illegal immigrants expelled.

Analysts say the sluggish economic growth and high unemployment probably contribute to the appeal of the National Front right now, though it remains to be seen whether its political breakthrough will be a lasting one.

IN THE US: KEEPING CLEAR OF TOUCHY ISSUE

For anti-immigration lobby groups in the United States, this year has been something of a gold mine.

The surge of undocumented children entering the US through its southern border, an Ebola outbreak in West Africa and the threat of foreign fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) all present activists with an opportunity to stoke fears of foreigners landing on American shores.

Yet this election season, anti-immigration group NumbersUSA is spending over US$1 million (S$1.27 million) pushing the evergreen message that foreigners are taking American jobs.

For the main political parties, immigration reform is an issue neither one wants to highlight.

While there may be vocal opponents to immigrants, the US has long prided itself as a place where people from all over the world come to seek opportunities. There does not appear to be any evidence that the weight of public opinion is shifting to either side.

For the parties, that means picking a side comes with a lot of risk.

Though Republicans are often more closely identified with the push against immigrants, political realities are slowly moving the party to the left on the issue. An autopsy by the party on its 2012 presidential election loss concluded that the party needed to "embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform".

Democrats are similarly unsure if the issue is a winner for them. President Barack Obama initially pledged a series of executive actions on immigration reform to take place in the middle of the year only to later postpone them till after the November mid-term elections.

IN SWEDEN: BACKLASH AGAINST REFUGEES

The shock that greeted the strong performance by the Sweden Democrats in the country's general parliamentary elections last month is largely due to the seeming contradiction between Sweden's reputation as a country that welcomes refugees and a party often criticised for being racist and xenophobic.

Sweden currently takes in more asylum seekers per capita than any other country in Europe. This year alone, some 80,000 refugees - mostly from Syria - are expected to flee to the Nordic state.

The Sweden Democrats want to cut the number of refugees coming in by 90 per cent, arguing that the money will be better spent on humanitarian aid to war zones or welfare programmes for Swedes.

The party's leader, Mr Jamie Akesson, outlines the party's stand this way: "We believe that mass immigration and multiculturalism get in the way of our country's development and welfare systems. We cannot afford this."

That led the Sweden Democrats to one of their best showings at the polls. They more than doubled the number of seats held to 49 in the 349-seat House.

jeremyau@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Oct 19, 2014.
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