A blessing in disguise: could Europe benefit from the refugee influx?
A migrant girl is pictured as a group of Middle-Eastern migrants wait to cross the Hungarian-Croatian border, in the Croatian village of Baranjsko Petrovo Selo, on September 27, 2015. (AFP/Elvis Barukcic)
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The reaction of European governments and media to the recent flow of refugees into Europe has generally been xenophobic.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has referred to the refugees as “a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean.” Sylvie Kauffmann, a former senior editor at the French daily Le Monde, wrote in the New York Times recently that “no French politician in his or her right mind would dare to visit a refugee center these days.” Katie Hopkins, the British television personality and columnist, wrote in the tabloid The Sun: “Rescue boats? I’d use gunships to stop migrants.”
Perhaps the most potent picture of xenophobia was that of Petra Laszlo, the now infamous Hungarian photographer, tripping a running Syrian refugee, who fell on the child he was carrying.
To be fair, there are also voices of sympathy with the asylum seekers. They began to be heard mostly after horrid pictures of the agony and mistreatment of the refugees. This was particularly true of the photograph of a dead Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year-old boy who was neatly dressed for the trip to Europe, whose body washed ashore on a Turkish beach. Those who have shown sympathy include European leaders such as the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and a number of civil society organizations in various European countries.
However, Merkel is under pressure from her allies in government to introduce controls on the flow of refugees. Some measures have already been taken in this direction, including the imposition of stricter border controls. The general mood in Europe is still antagonistic toward the refugees, as shown by opinion polls across the continent. The refugee crisis gave a boost in almost every European country to parties that favor limiting immigration and withdrawing from the European Union. This is true even in liberal Sweden, where the anti-immigration, anti-European Union Sweden Democrats has seen its support rise from 12.9 percent in the last elections of September 2014 to 25.2 percent today, according to the latest polls. This places it ahead of all other parties, including the ruling Social Democrats.
This xenophobia is not justified by the numbers. Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, suggested accepting 120,000 asylum seekers to be distributed among all Union members, but his proposal is facing resistance from a number of countries.
This figure, however, represents only 0.15 persons per 1,000 citizens of the European Union, or about one person for every 7,000. These are by no means alarming figures, especially when one considers that the asylum seekers are vetted for security reasons before being accepted.
To put these ratios in perspective, the corresponding ratios in the countries neighboring Syria – that is, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon – are 27.6, 220 and 300 refugees per 1,000 citizens respectively. Furthermore, the number of asylum seekers declared acceptable by various European countries are insignificant compared to the numbers of immigrants these countries receive on a regular basis.
For example, the United Kingdom, which decided to accept 4,000 refugees per year, receives over 500,000 immigrants a year from inside and outside the European Union; France 330,000; and Germany more than 680,000, according to figures from 2013.
For the Europeans, then, the problem is not with the numbers. It has to do with the fact that most of the refugees are Muslim. Some European leaders have suggested that they would only accept Christian refugees. Victor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister, wrote a blunt opinion piece in a leading German newspaper in which he warned that “most [of the refugees] are not Christian, but Muslim ... That is an important question, because Europe and European culture have Christian roots.” It is not just xenophobia it is also Islamophobia.
The current crisis could very well be turned into a boon for some major European countries such as Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy and the European Union in general. A study undertaken by the United Nations in 2000 on “replacement migration” indicated that, while regular levels of immigration into the European Union and its larger member states would be sufficient in most cases to keep populations from declining, current immigration levels were far from sufficient to offset the aging of the population and to keep the ratio of non-working population to working population (the “support ratio”) at present levels.
Support ratios are already high and rising, thus increasing the burden on wages and incomes of the working population to support an aging population.
A partial solution would be to increase the retirement age to the mid-70s, which is not practical. Raising the level of immigration considerably would help ease the problem or at least halt or delay the rise in support ratios.
The existing deficit in the working-age population is also reflected in shortages in certain skills. Nowhere in Europe is this clearer, or politically more recognized, than in Germany where businesses are finding great difficulty filling jobs requiring special skills. This situation is bound to get worse.
“If we manage to quickly train those that come to us and to get them into work, then we will solve one of our biggest problems for the economic future of our country: the skills shortage,” Germany’s economy minister, Sigmar Gabriel, recently told the German parliament.
At an immigration congress organized in Berlin by his ministry, Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere cited a study by a German research foundation which showed that in the year 2050, only 29 million people would be of working age, compared with 45 million today, and that without immigration this gap cannot be closed. He then said the German economy was experiencing shortages in some 70 occupations and recommended the “need-based management” of asylum seekers, in other words favoring those migrants who have skills matching these occupations.
The Institute of Employment Research in Nuremburg estimated recently that around 77 percent of asylum-seekers and war refugees were of working age, skilled and young – just what Germany needs. Because of this, the German government estimates that in four or five years, the benefits derived from the refugees will outweigh the $11 billion that will be spent per year to accommodate them within the coming four or five years.
However, there is more to helping the refugees than the economic advantages that will come from this. There are also the humanitarian benefits, and more importantly, the obligation, of settling the refuges. That obligation is set out in the 1951 Refugee Convention, which has been ratified by all European countries, as well as the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, which has been ratified, additionally, by the United States.
Yet the moral obligation goes well beyond that. In the recent past, it is difficult to exonerate Europe and the United States from responsibility for the chaos in the Arab world. Europeans cannot continue to act as if what is happening in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan is of no concern to them. NATO members participated in recent wars in these countries and left behind devastating civil wars. This is especially true of the United States.
“Like an incompetent doctor causing one organ after another to fail,” wrote Jack Mirkinson in Salon, “the U.S. has systematically destabilized the entire Middle East piece by piece over the past 15 years. From Afghanistan to Iraq to Libya, America and its allies have ripped the region apart and left only misery in its wake.”
That is why Europe and the United States must at least help to solve the resulting refugee crisis. Not even promised financial assistance to countries bordering Syria, which have taken on the largest burden of refugees, have been fully honored in recent years. As reported earlier this month in the New York Times, “just $1.67 billion of the needed $4.5 billion for 2015 has been received.”
When Israel was created by the decision of the major powers, the millions of Palestinian refugees were quietly settled in camps in neighboring countries and the states responsible for that decision were not directly affected. But the world has changed since then. It has shrunk. National borders have melted. The major powers can no longer create situations producing millions of refugees without themselves being affected. Nor can they allow terrorism to flourish in one part of the world and keep it from reaching their shores. This is the new reality and they should understand it. As the sign in the china shop says: “You break it, you own it.”
By Riad Tabbarah
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