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May 2020, Volume 26, Number 2

Europe, Asia

The Turkish government in March 2020 encouraged Syrian and other migrants in the country to travel to Greece, breaking a March 2016 agreement under which Turkey blocked the exit of migrants in exchange for E6 billion in EU aid to improve conditions for Syrians and other migrants in Turkey. About half of the EU aid has been spent, and 27,000 Syrians in Turkey have been resettled in EU countries since March 2016.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan complained that the EU did not provide enough support for Turkey’s effort to prevent the Syrian government’s takeover of the rebel-held province of Idlib, where a million Syrians were displaced and are seeking to enter Turkey in February 2020.

The Greek government responded by suspending the right to apply for asylum for the month of March 2020, posting troops on the 120-mile Greek-Turkish land border and deporting foreigners who illegally entered Greece. There were clashes on the Greek-Turkish border as police and troops blocked the entry of migrants. Greek ships turned back dinghies trying to reach Greek islands such as Lesbos that are near Turkey’s western border.

In mid-March, the Turkish government began to bus migrants from the Greek-Turkish border back to Istanbul. One EU official called the Turkish government’s bussing of migrants to the border “the first-ever refugee exodus… fully organized by one government against another.”

Turkey more readily grants student and other visas to African and Asian nationals than most EU countries, prompting some to fly to Turkey, travel to Northern Cyprus, and cross the Green Line separating Turkish and Greek Cyprus and apply for asylum in EU member-state Republic of Cyprus.

The European Court of Justice in April 2020 ruled that Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic violated EU law by refusing to accept their share of the 160,000 asylum seekers that were to be distributed from Greece and Italy to other EU member states between 2015 and 2017. The European Commission, which is preparing a new migration agreement, said that the court’s ruling would make it easier to enforce new plans to redistribute asylum seekers.

Europe and especially Italy was the epicenter of the coronavirus in March 2020, prompting governments to order residents to stay at home. Border checks were re-imposed in the 26-member Schengen area, and non-EU citizens were prohibited from entering the Schengen area for 30 days to slow the spread of the virus.

By mid-April 2020, some EU member states started to relax stay-at-home orders. As the number of new coronavirus infections slowed, government goals shifted from saving lives to saving livelihoods.

Six EU member states, Austria, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Italy and Sweden, do not have minimum wage laws. The European Commission in February 2020 proposed that all EU member states have a national minimum wage that is 60 percent of the country’s median or average wage.

Britain. The British government announced that, beginning January 1, 2021, foreigners would have to earn at least 70 points to get a work permit. Points are awarded for having a job offer that reflects individual skills (40 points), speaking English, and being paid at least L25,600 ($33,300) a year, with exceptions to the 70-point threshold in labor shortage occupations such as nursing. Despite employer protests, the government said that reducing the influx of low-skilled foreigners was necessary to raise productivity growth.

Britain’s farm guest worker program was expanded from 2,500 to 10,000 slots for foreign workers, and 20,000 foreign youth are being allowed to work and learn while in the UK under youth mobility arrangements.

The Labor government in 2004 did not restrict the entry of Poles and other Eastern Europeans from countries that joined the EU, leading to an influx of 3.2 million migrants from other EU countries. Some 70 percent of EU migrants now in the UK would not satisfy the new point-based entry requirements.

The UK withdrew from the EU January 31, 2020, but will abide by EU regulations while negotiating an exit agreement expected by December 31, 2020. The UK has undergone several transformations, including the end of empire and the development of a welfare state after WWII, followed by privatization and market-led economic policies in the 1980s. Optimists hope that the UK will emerge as a kind of free-trade entrepôt similar to Hong Kong or Singapore, serving as a springboard to a more regulated EU. Pessimists believe that cutting ties with the EU will slow Britain’s economic growth.

Growth in the 19 members of the EU that use the Euro slowed to zero at the end of 2019 due to strikes in France, political uncertainty in Italy, and less trade that affected Germany. The coronavirus strained ties between the 19 countries that use the Euro in March 2020, as hard-hit Italy and Spain pressed for relief from EU budget guidelines that limit their spending on relief and economic stimulus. Northern European countries believe that heavily indebted southern European countries should have made hard choices to reduce their budgets before the pandemic.

Croatia. The Bosnian-Croatian border is an EU frontline in the battle to prevent unauthorized migration into EU countries. Bosnia makes it relatively easy for foreigners from Afghanistan and Pakistan to enter, encouraging some migrants to enter Bosnia legally and then move to Croatia. Croatian border police reportedly return migrants to Bosnia without allowing them to apply for asylum. The EU finances camps to shelter migrants in Bosnia.

France. The longest transportation strike in modern times ended in January 2020 with a victory for President Emmanuel Macron, whose plan to combine 42 pension plans into one that makes pension payments dependent on points earned over working lives was approved in March 2020. Previous pension systems-based payments on end-of-working-life salaries, and were especially generous to public employees. The strikes forced the government to allow nine special pension plans to continue, including one for ballet dancers.

Macron faced yellow-vest protesters in 2018 and 2019, as people demonstrated first against a fuel tax hike, which was cancelled, and then against social inequality. There were town halls around France that allowed people to discuss their priorities for the government.

Macron is reshaping the French economy and society, moving ahead with policy changes despite protests. The unemployment rate was falling to 8.1 percent early in 2020, more people were employed, and investment rose.

The 67 million French have 3.4 million second homes. Many wealthy Parisians moved to their second homes before the government issued stay-at-home orders in March 2020 to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, raising concerns in some holiday areas that rich migrants would bring the virus with them. Germany, Greece, Spain and other countries also urged residents of large cities to remain there rather than move to second homes where there were fewer health care facilities.

Germany. Germans in several cities demonstrated in March 2020 in favor of accepting some of the migrants trying to enter Greece from Turkey. The German government says it will not allow a repeat of 2015, when over a million migrants entered Greece and moved to EU countries to apply for asylum.

Beginning March 1, 2020, non-EU foreigners with skills may enter Germany to accept a job if they speak German; foreigners over 45 must earn at least E3,700 a month in Germany. Non-EU foreigners will receive four-year work permits, and their spouses and children can join them in Germany, but the dependents of skilled foreign workers are not eligible for welfare benefits.

Germany’s population topped 83 million in 2019 due to immigration.

Over a million migrant farm workers enter EU countries each year, including 300,000 who work seasonally in Germany. In Spring 2020, many farmers complained of labor shortages because borders were closed to non-essential travel, so that many of the 30,000 Poles and Romanians who normally harvest 57,000 acres of white asparagus in April-May for the minimum wage of E9.35 an hour were initially blocked from arriving before the German government agreed that seasonal farm workers were essential.

Many Poles work in German agriculture, while Ukrainians are employed on Polish farms. Poland has an estimated 1.3 million Ukrainian workers.

The German government in March 2020 allowed foreign seasonal workers to remain in Germany longer than the normal 90 days, and created an online portal for jobless hotel and restaurant workers to seek seasonal farm jobs. The government soon relented and deemed seasonal foreign farm workers to be essential workers who could enter Germany to work.

Germany has long been powered by coal, but in January 2020 announced that it would stop burning coal by 2038 and provide over $44 billion to help coal-mining regions and power plant operators to adjust. Nuclear plants are to be closed by 2022. The impacts of Germany’s move to limit fossil use may be limited. China consumes half of the world’s coal, and continues to build more coal-fired power plants.

Berlin’s government froze rents on 1.5 million apartments for five years beginning in February 2020 in a bid to slow gentrification. Fewer than 20 percent of Berlin’s three million residents own their homes, and critics of rent control say that rent control will simply slow the building of more housing. The city government promised to construct 60,000 apartments in the next few years.

Greece. Greece has 112,000 asylum seekers, including 41,000 on its islands near Turkey’s western coast such as Lesbos, the Greek island with the most migrants. Many of these migrants have applied for asylum, and some want to leave Greece for other EU member states. In March 2020 the EU offered E2,000 to each migrant on Greek islands such as Lesbos who returned to their countries of origin.

Greeks who were sympathetic to migrants in 2015 are increasingly hostile toward them in 2020, as the economy struggles to recover from a recession that began in 2008, when the unemployment rate was 7.2 percent. By June 2013, the unemployment rate was almost 28 percent before declining to 16 percent in 2020.

Italy. First northern Italy, and later all of Italy, was shut down in March 2020 because of the coronavirus. Schools were closed, sporting events cancelled, and bars and restaurants were ordered to close at 6pm. Italy had the most deaths from Covid-19 in March 2020; 90 percent of those who died were 70 and older.

The Coldiretti agriculture association complained that the 370,000 seasonal workers from Eastern Europe were blocked from entering the country and filling farm jobs.

The Five-Star Movement won the largest share of the vote in March 2018 elections, 33 percent, but some Five-Star politicians left the party in 2020 over disputes about how to turn protest into policy. Five-Star switched from governing with the rightist League led by Matteo Salvini to governing with the center-left Democratic Party in summer 2018. Salvini, who precipitated the crisis that led to a new coalition government, hopes that a pending trial charging him with endangering migrants when he refused to allow a boat to bring them into Italian ports will revive his popularity.

Poland. Poland had about 100,000 foreign residents in 2011, and over three million in 2020, including two million from Ukraine. Citizens of the ex-USSR can work for six months in Poland without visas, and their Polish employers do not have to pay payroll taxes on their wages.

Spain. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in February 2020 ruled that Spain could return illegal entrants to Morocco without allowing them to apply for asylum. Two sub-Saharan migrants entered Melilla in 2014 with a group of others who scaled fences. They were apprehended and returned to Morocco, prompting the ECHR in 2017 to rule that Spain violated the rights of returned migrants.

The ECHR reversed the 2017 ruling in February 2020, stressing that the migrants’ illegal entry into Melilla meant that Spain did not have to allow them to seek asylum before returning them to Morocco, since they were safe in Morocco. Critics of the principle of non-refoulement cheered the ruling, saying that allowing all entrants to apply for asylum fuels smuggling.

Bangladesh. In April 2013, over 1,100 garment workers died when the Rana Plaza building that housed several sewing factories collapsed. Clothing brands threatened to stop having clothes sewn in Bangladesh, prompting the government to work with the ILO to improve factory safety and wages and working conditions for garment workers.

Seven years later, Bangladesh has 4,500 sewing factories with about 4.5 million employees, and is second to China in the export of ready-made garments, exporting $34 billion worth of RMGs in 2019. Bangladeshi minimum wage in 2020 is 8,000 taka ($94) a month.

Clothing brands in 2013 began to fund inspectors to check the safety of buildings housing sewing factories. The Bangladeshi RMG industry wants to end this international monitoring and return to government oversight of factory safety. Critics warn that the Bangladeshi government will not be able to assure safe garment factories.

Since Rana Plaza, factory owners have spent more on safety measures, but competition from lower-cost garment factories in Africa limits what they can recover from clothing buyers. Many factory owners are politicians or related to politicians, and critics believe they will pressure government inspectors to avoid requiring needed safety and other improvements. Critics note that subcontractors with informal workplaces have mostly been exempt from the pressure placed on factories to improve safety.

In April 2020, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association reported that many sewing factories were on the verge of bankruptcy as European and US orders disappeared. Bangladeshi exports of $40 billion in 2019 including 85 percent ready-made garments. A minimum wage increase in December 2018 reduced garment manufacturer margins, and the cancellation of orders in spring 2020 resulted in hundreds of thousands of layoffs.

China. China’s economic growth was 6.1 percent in 2019, raising the country’s GDP to $14 trillion, but growth is expected to slip below five percent in 2020 for the first time in three decades due to coronavirus. Growth peaked in 2007 at 14 percent, and averaged 9.5 percent between 1978 and 2017.

The coronavirus likely originated in a food market in Wuhan in Hubei province in December 2019. Chinese food markets often sell live wild animals, including snakes, birds and rats in so-called wet markets. The virus is believed to have jumped from bats to other animals to people through the wet markets. Within three months, the coronavirus killed over 3,000 people and sickened more than 100,000.

Wuhan, a center of auto and auto parts manufacturing was closed, preventing the 11 million residents from leaving. The Lunar New Year holiday, when factories close as millions of Chinese return to their home villages, was lengthened as airlines suspended service to mainland China.

The coronavirus, named for the crown-like covering of the cell, is similar to SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) that began in Guangdong and killed 774 people and sickened thousands in 2002-03. SARS moved from bats to Asian palm civets to humans. Many observers noted that the reluctance of local officials to report bad news to the central government slowed responses to the coronavirus, just as with SARS in 2002-03. SARS killed about 10 percent of those who caught it; the coronavirus appears to be killing about three percent of those who catch it.

The 1918 Spanish flus, considered the deadliest pandemic, infected a third of the world’s people and killed 50 million.

The spread of coronavirus slowed global economic growth. China’s 300 million migrants, who staff many factories, were ordered to remain home after the Lunar New Year, keeping many factories closed. Most migrant workers are not paid when they do not work, which reduced consumption until factories and offices began to reopen in March 2020.

During the 2002-03 SARS outbreak, China’s GDP was about five percent of global economic output. In 2020, China’s GDP is almost 20 percent of global GDP.

Some 400,000 Chinese students are enrolled in US universities in 2019-20, plus 200,000 in Australia and 120,000 in the UK. Many pay high fees for master’s programs in business; the coronavirus may reduce what has become a lucrative source of income for some universities.

About 14.6 million babies were born in China in 2019, the lowest number since 1961, when less than 12 million were born. The total fertility rate was 1.6, well below the 2.1 needed to maintain a stable population. China ended its one-child policy in 2016, but births have not rebounded amidst women working for wages and the rising cost of raising children in urbanizing China. If birthrates continue to decline, the pay-as-you-go pension system could collapse.

India. The Indian government in March 2020 ordered businesses to close and people to stay home for three weeks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, displacing many of the 45 million of internal migrants who typically live where they work. When their employers closed, the migrants lost their incomes and housing.

Migrants who tried to take busses or walk to their home villages were often stopped by police who were ordered to prevent travel. One of India’s 36 state and territorial governments, Uttar Pradesh, sent buses to Delhi and other cities to bring migrants home, but most state governments expected migrants to fend for themselves during the lockdown. Police were accused of harassing migrants seeking food.

The government announced a relief package but, with 80 percent of the 500 million strong labor force employed informally, there was little hope that significant aid would reach migrants who are not registered in national labor databases.

Japan. There were a record 1.7 million foreign workers in Japan in October 2019, including 418,000 Chinese, 401,000 Vietnamese, and 180,000 Filipinos. Manufacturing employed 483,000 foreign workers, followed by retail trade with 212,000.