The World’s Worst Immigration Laws

Think Arizona's new immigration law is harsh? The Grand Canyon state has nothing on these guys.

People march downtown Rome during a demonstration against all sorts of racism on October 17, 2009. Tens of thousands people took a part in the demonstation to protest against racism and a new legislation to fight illegal immigration. AFP PHOTO / Vincenzo Pinto (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)


Country:  Italy

Immigrant population: 3.9 million


Country:  Italy

Immigrant population: 3.9 million

What the law does: Like much of southern Europe, Italy faces the daunting challenge of trying to regulate and manage massive migration inflows from North Africa and the Mediterranean. In response, the Italian government has instituted various measures aimed at curbing immigration. One of the harshest, passed by parliament in 2009, penalizes illegal immigrants with a fine of €5,000-10,000 and allows immigration officials to detain them for up to 6 months.

Reactions: Suffice it to say that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s tough new legislation has done little to allay the rising tension in Italy over immigration and its role in Italian society. This tension came to a head this January when race riots erupted in Rosarno, a small town in the southern region of Calabria that is home to some 20,000 migrant workers, many of whom are African. The riots, which lasted for two days, left cars destroyed, shops looted, more than 50 immigrants and police officers wounded, and many rioters handcuffed and detained.


Country: Switzerland

Immigrant population: 1.7 million

What the law does: Switzerland’s uneasy relationship with its Muslim immigrant population became very public in recent years thanks to the rise of the far-right Swiss People’s Party (SVP) and the referendum that resulted in a ban on mosque minarets in 2009. One subject that hasn’t been getting as much publicity, however, is a tough new immigration law proposed by the SVP that is currently awaiting referendum. The law would allow the Swiss government to immediately deport all convicted criminals from other countries and — depending on which specific provisions of the bill pass — potentially their family members.

Reactions: After the SVP distributed a now-infamous poster in 2007 depicting three white sheep kicking out one black sheep above the caption “For More Security,” the U.N. instructed its special rapporteur on racism to request an official explanation from the government regarding the poster (at the time, the SVP held a plurality of seats in the Swiss coalition government). Swiss society has become polarized over the immigration law debate. In 2007, opponents of the bill formed the short-lived “Black Sheep Committee” to support immigrants rights — but enthusiasm for the SVP and its policies continues to grow.


Country: Australia

Immigrant Population: 5.5 million

What the law does: Despite its anything-goes image, Australia has a surprisingly draconian immigration policy. And none of the country’s various immigration laws is more controversial than the Migration Reform Act of 1992 and its subsequent amendments, which collectively require the authorities to detain all non-citizens who are discovered in Australia without a valid visa. Between 1999 and 2003, the law was used to detain more than 2,000 child refugees from Southeast Asia and the Middle East who were seeking asylum in Australia.

Reactions: The law has seriously irked human rights NGOs. In 2001, Human Rights Watch sent Prime Minister John Howard a forceful letter arguing that the legislation “seriously contravenes Australia’s obligations to non-citizens, refugees and asylum seekers under international human rights and refugee law.” Three years later, the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission released a report condemning the government for the abuses and human rights violations child refugees suffered while being detained. Although Kevin Rudd’s government has softened certain provisions of the law, it is still being employed to intercept and detain illegal immigrants.


Country: Japan

Immigrant Population: 1.7 million

What the law does: Japan has long struggled with its demographics and immigration problems. Although the country’s aging population necessitates the importing of cheap labor, recently the Japanese government has sought to curtail immigration in an effort to shore up its unprecedentedly high unemployment figures. The most infamous of Tokyo’s new anti-immigration policies is the “Nikkei” Law. Passed in spring 2009, the law allows the Japanese government to pay $3,000 to each unemployed Latin American immigrant of Japanese descent (known as Nikkei in Japanese) and $2,000 to each of that unemployed worker’s family members to return to their country of origin. The catch? These workers and their family members would be prohibited from ever returning to work in Japan. An estimated 366,000 Brazilians and Peruvians lived in Japan at the time.

Reactions: Although the law is voluntary, it’s nevertheless stirred up a deal of controversy within Japan. Some support the measure as being economically prudent, while others, such as Angelo Ishi of Musashi University in Tokyo, describe the law as “an insult” to Japan’s immigrant communities. Much of the Western press has taken a relatively neutral stance on the issue, aside from Time, which ran a story with the headline “Japan to Immigrants: Thanks, But You Can Go Home Now.”


Country: United Arab Emirates

Immigrant population: 3.75 million (83.5 percent of total population)

What the law does: An abundant supply of cheap immigrant labor from Southeast Asia and India has helped make the UAE a major destination for foreign direct investment. Yet despite a surge of immigration into the Emirates over the past decade, the government has yet to reform its many draconian immigration policies and labor laws. One of the toughest provisions in Emirati immigration law is the prohibition of foreigners from engaging in any sort of labor union-like activity. As a result, living conditions are often harsh, including 80-hour work weeks, back-breaking manual labor, and below-minimum-wage pay. It’s not atypical for immigrants to live in “tiny pre-fabricated huts, 12 men to a room, forced to wash themselves in filthy brown water and cook in kitchens next to overflowing toilets.” 

Reactions: Whereas in the past criticism of UAE immigration and labor law seemed to come only from human rights NGOs and international organizations like the U.N., more recently the immigrants themselves have begun to denounce such laws. Immigrant workers in Dubai have been particularly vocal. In 2006, a group of blue-collar workers in Dubai held a union meeting and protested the unfair working and living conditions that their employers subject them to. More recently, in September 2009, construction workers went on strike and protested in the streets, demanding higher wages and overtime pay.

Peter Williams is an editorial researcher at FP.

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