A group of refugees walk on the last leg of their crossing from Greece to FYR of Macedonia, 8 August 2015.
“What is at stake is nothing less than the survival and well-being of a generation of innocents.” – United Nations High Commisioner for Refugees António Guterres
In recent days, the photograph of a three-year-old Syrian boy lying face-down on a Turkish beach, washed ashore after drowning with at least eleven other refugees attempting to cross from Turkey to Greece by boat, has stoked the humanitarian flame that previous drowning deaths had already ignited across Europe. But despite the calls for action that have followed casualties like this, many Europeans still fear the socio-economic and demographic effect that an influx of refugees could have. Now that more lives are on the line than ever before, Europe needs to answer a basic policy question: Are those fears realistic?
Contrary to popular belief, economic prosperity and inclusive immigration policy have proven highly compatible. In the United States, for example, the Center for American Progress reports that the immigrant community accounts for higher rates of advanced education (11.6% hold advanced degrees compared to 10.6% of native-born Americans); lower incarceration rates (0.7% among men between 18 and 39 years of age compared to 3.5% among native-born men); and average to below average rates of social program usage.
While it’s difficult, of course, to accurately predict how the recent influx of refugees will affect Europe, it’s unlikely to cause the kind of socio-economic collapse that far-right politicians so fondly warn of — especially given that the nearly 400,000 people arriving in Europe this year account for a mere 0.054% of the continent’s overall population. While 400,000 is still a large number to accommodate, Europe’s population (which is declining in many regions, including in Germany) can easily take that amount and more without suffering the kind of crippling population boom that Lebanon is experiencing after adding over one million refugees to its population of 4.5 million.
With Germany vowing to take in 800,000 refugees this year alone, Europe’s mission should be clear: ensure that refugees have the resources they need to contribute their fullest to Europe’s economy — which they’re more than willing to do. Over the past 20 years, immigrants have brought with them nearly $55 billion worth of prior education — an investment that the European economy can freely benefit from – further supporting The Economist’s claim that immigrants are “net contributors to the public purse.” With statistics that all point to the positive net economic impact of immigration on Europe, the continent’s tax money would likely be better invested (morally and economically) in language training, skills-transfer programs, and further education than on razor wire fencing or border police.
Europe’s Red Herring
The official asylum support website of the United Kingdom stipulates that every asylum seeker can request cash support in the amount of £36.95 ($56.87) per person, per week (France’s ministry provides slightly more, equivalent to $87.17 per week). This cash support is forfeited upon acquisition of alternative income, and is low enough to strongly incentivize refugees to quickly find work — minimizing the cost to the public. Those granted asylum contribute to the work force, pay taxes, and participate in the political process, and yet right-wing nationalist parties and groups across Europe — such as the BNP in Britain, Golden Dawn in Greece, and the National Front in France — continue to exploit the archetype of welfare-exploiting migrants to gain political support for their xenophobic policies.
Outside of the political realm, this simmering hostility towards refugees is reflected in the tendency of certain politicians (and media) to conflate refugees with economic migrants. Far from mere semantics, the phenomenon underscores an important point: while many Europeans express an entirely rational fear of the economic damage that could result from thousands or millions of refugees crossing their borders, many also oppose immigration on ethnic, religious, and political grounds that often border on racism. For instance, following the announcement of a European Union refugee scheme intended to alleviate some of the pressure on European states that have borne the brunt of the refugee crisis, the Slovakian Prime Minister declared that his country (which is expected to take in 200 refugees) would accept only Christians.
While Slovakia thus far is the only state to openly discriminate against refugees based on their religion, several other states have incorporated racial and religious preferences in their policies. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, for example, has said that Hungary “[does] not want a large number of Muslim people,” and the Cypriots have stated preference for Eastern Orthodox Christians (though neither expressed an explicit refusal of refugees from other religious denominations). Even in many Western European countries, prominent right-wing politicians have gained incredible support in recent months by stoking the nationalist, anti-integration sentiment that has long simmered behind Europe’s welcoming exterior.
With Denmark taking out advertisements earlier this week to deter further migration, and with countries mounting larger defences along their borders, Germany appears to be the only European nation doing its part to fulfill its moral and legal obligations (as laid out in the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights and the Geneva Conventions). The world’s wealthiest continent has the resources, the land, and the infrastructure to take in millions of refugees from Syria, Eritrea, and elsewhere. The refugees, for their part, have the skills and the dedication to help Europe recover and diversify both economically and socially. Merkel’s promise of aid is an astounding and encouraging first step, but Germany cannot solve the crisis on its own — nor should it.
Patrick O’Donnell is a sophomore at McGill University, majoring in Political Science and Sociology and minoring in Economics and Arabic.