Until the end of the second world war Europe was a continent of emigrants. Millions left for the Americas: some to colonise, others to escape hunger, financial crises, persecution, ethnic cleansing, war or totalitarian governments.
European citizens arrived in Latin and North America en masse, without visas or conditions imposed on them by the authorities. They were simply welcomed, and continue to be in Latin America. They came to exploit the natural wealth and to transfer it to Europe, with a high cost for the native population. Yet the people, property and rights of the migrants were always respected.
Contrast the European "return directive", to be voted on in the European parliament this week. It imposes harsh terms for detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants, regardless of the time they have spent in European countries, their work situation, their family ties or their achievements in integrating themselves into local society.
The EU is now the main destination for migrants around the world, because of its positive image of space, prosperity and public freedom. The great majority of migrants contribute to, rather than exploit, this prosperity.
They are employed in public works, construction, cleaning, hospitals and domestic work. They take the jobs the Europeans cannot or will not do. Maintaining the relationship between the employed and the retired by providing generous income to the social security system, the migrant offers a solution to demographic and financial problems in the EU.
For us, our emigrants represent help in development that Europeans do not give us (few countries reach the minimum objective of 0.7% of GDP in development assistance). Latin America received, in 2006, a total of $68bn sent back from abroad, more than the total foreign investment in our countries. My country, Bolivia, received more than 10% of its GDP in such remittances.
Unfortunately, the return directive is a huge infringement of the human rights of our Latin American friends. It proposes jailing undocumented immigrants for up to 18 months before their expulsion. Mothers with children could be arrested, without regard to family and school, and put in detention centres, where we know depression, hunger strikes and suicides happen. How can we accept it?
At the same time, the EU is trying to convince the Andean Community of Nations (Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru) to sign an "association agreement" that includes a free trade agreement of a similar nature to that imposed by the US. We are under intense pressure to accept demands for liberalisation of our trade, financial services, intellectual property rights and public works. Under so-called "judicial protection" we are being pressured to denationalise water, gas and telecommunications. Where is the "judicial protection" for our people seeking new horizons in Europe?
If the return directive becomes law, we will not be morally able to deepen negotiations with the EU, and we reserve the right to legislate so European citizens have the same obligations for visas that Europe imposes on the Bolivians, according to the diplomatic principle of reciprocity.
The social cohesion problems that Europe is suffering now are not the fault of migrants, but the result of the model of development imposed by the north, which destroys the planet and dismembers human societies. I appeal to European leaders to drop this directive and instead form a migration policy that respects human rights, and allows us to maintain the movement of people that helps both continents.
Evo Morales Ayma is the president of the Republic of Bolivia presidencia.gov.bo
© 2008 The Guardian