Europe has a problem with immigrants. That is hardly news – it has been true for decades. But the problem has now become more acute and unmanageable because throughout those decades Europe refused to admit it had a problem. Rather than recognize that Europe’s future would involve ever more immigration, and make comprehensive plans to integrate and advance their immigrants, benign neglect or efforts at multiculturalism prevailed alongside a generous asylum policy. Europe’s immigrants were thus in, but not fully part of, their new societies. Such policies were bound to create trouble; for when immigrants are seen as a threat to be kept at a distance, and hence are excluded and marginalized, they become a threat. It would have been wiser, when immigrants were still arriving in modest numbers, to more vigorously set up good quality schools and apprenticeships, and plan for their integration into neighborhoods and workplaces.
For it was just a matter of time before a truly major humanitarian crisis in the Middle East or North Africa, which have teeming and youthful populations, put hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers in motion. Now that crisis conditions, due to brutal civil wars and religious extremism, have embraced both North Africa and the Middle East a predictable flood of asylum seekers has sought to take advantage of Europe’s generosity and the proximity of her shores.
The numbers, though larger than Europe has been accustomed to, are not overwhelming. The European Union population of 500 million should be able to absorb 5 or even 10 million refugees, increasing its foreign born population by 1 or 2%. After all, the foreign-born population of the United States is 11% of the total; in Canada it is 19% and in Australia it is 22%. By contrast, in all European Union countries excepting only the Baltics (with many Russian-born residents) and Croatia, the non-EU born population is 10% or less. In France, Spain, the U.K., Belgium, the Netherlands and Greece it is just over 8%; in Italy and Germany closer to 7%. In Hungary and Romania it is less than 1%.
These low numbers indicate that Europe is still new to large-scale immigration. Indeed, in the 1970s the number of non-Europeans in most European countries was minimal – like that in Hungary today. But since then the growth of immigrants, especially Muslims, has been rapid. In the 1970s, France and Germany had only a few hundred thousand resident Muslims; today they both have several million. That ten-fold growth has been alarming, leading to panic that if such growth continued Islam would take over. But that is wholly an illusion from growth starting from a very small base. If you have a country of 60 million, such as France, and the Muslim population grows from 300,000 to 3,000,000 that ten-fold increase represents an increase of 2.7 million; but it still leaves the Muslim population at just 5% of the total population. Another two million immigrants seems large, but it would not even double the existing Muslim total, and would still leave the total Muslim population at under 10%. That is a significant minority, of course, but certainly not enough to swamp the remaining 90% of the population. In Europe, the percentage of Christians is falling fast but that is not mainly due to the increase of the Muslim population — rather it is being driven by the large increase in the number of those unaffiliated with any Church who have left Christianity; but that is another story.
Can France, Germany, or other European nations manage to move forward with a foreign-born population of 10%, and their children? Of course, if that 10% have access to language training, good schools, and support in finding jobs. No, however, if that 10% is pushed to the margins, struggles to be accepted, faces job discrimination and inferior schools.
Some would claim that immigrants can never be integrated if their values or religion are too different from that of their host countries. History and experience, however, say otherwise. The large Arab populations of Detroit and Melbourne, the vast Korean population of Los Angeles, and the huge Japanese population in São Paulo are just a few examples of populations that have overcome vast gulfs of language or religion. It is only when discrimination and exclusion focus on a particular group – even of the same language and religion as the majority, as with Blacks in the United States or Irish in Northern Ireland – that integration fails. Integration is a matter of successful policies and political leadership, not inherent differences.
Moreover, most Europeans do not realize that the immigrants seeking asylum from Syria and Libya are not the most wretched members of their societies. Rather, they are professionals and students: engineers, architects and doctors and skilled workers. They are those people with the savings to pay smugglers, and whose lives and futures have been most severely stripped away by the conflicts in those nations. These immigrants are a potential resource for the receiving societies, as they have been for Australia, Canada, the U.S. and other countries of immigration.
It is sometimes argued that Europe should welcome immigrants because European-born populations are aging, and immigrants of working age will help offset that trend. But this is both wrong and misleading about the contribution of immigrants. First, it is wrong because an increase in the foreign born population of 1% or 2% of the total population will not have an appreciable impact on the age structure of the receiving societies. And it is misleading to think that the contribution of immigrants depends on their replacing older people. Australia, Canada, and the U.S. have benefitted from the economic contributions of immigrants for decades, even when they had much younger populations than Europe has today. This underlines a basic fact about immigrants: if they are given support and access to economic success, they will contribute to economic growth in their new home; if they lack that support they will make a smaller contribution. This fact holds regardless of the average age of the host society. It is policies that matter for immigrants’ success, not demography by itself.
While some individual countries have been far more generous and supportive of immigrants than others – Sweden for one, and Germany has improved enormously in the last two decades – the core problem is that Europe does not have a single authority to screen, process, settle, and support refugees. Instead, it has more than two dozen national authorities, some inside the EU and some outside. The result is that some countries have become countries of transit while others are targets for asylum. Borders where immigrants can cross, or will be accepted, constantly shift, leaving refugees swarming over various arrival points in chaotic fashion. Instead of a safe and orderly process to move refugees from danger to safety, and to spread the burden of settlement and integration fairly among nations according to their capacity and means, the complexity of multiple national policies exposes both asylum seekers and European nations to greater dangers and anxiety. At best some countries will be exceptionally generous leaving their populations to ask why, while at worst some countries will try to shift the entire responsibility to others and substitute razor wire for thoughtful immigration policies, with usually poor results.
The U.S. and Canada and Australia can manage immigration better (although they certainly are not without problems) because they have one immigration authority and one immigration policy, not dozens. To avoid the current chaos, Europe will have to similarly find a way to develop a common asylum and immigration policy, and a method to facilitate processing and settlement of asylum seekers and immigrants that reduces the profits of smugglers and the risks to refugees. Certainly, different procedures and rights will have to accrue to economic migrants from Morocco and Lebanon than war refugees from Libya and Syria. Yet the wars in the latter countries are not ending anytime soon, and condemning the victims of those wars to languish in terror and loss when they could be rebuilding their lives is neither moral nor wise. A comprehensive asylum policy should be developed and implemented as soon as possible; anything less will be a permanent shame to Europe and a repudiation of its values.
Moreover, it is utterly irresponsible to promise asylum to refugees who reach Europe, but then provide no legitimate means for refugees to get there. The result is to make people dependent on smugglers, who reap hundreds of millions of dollars that refugees would gladly pay for legitimate processing and travel to Europe, while putting the lives of those refugees – whom the asylum policy is intended to help reach safety – in the greatest danger.
The experience gained now in screening, settling, and integrating migrants will pay off in the future. Someday the wars in Libya and Syria will end. Yet the population of Africa is set to grow from just over one billion today to almost three billion people by 2060; the populations of the Middle East and Central and South Asia, from Iraq to Afghanistan, will similarly grow by hundreds of millions during this period. Given the poor quality of government in these regions, and likely future wars and climate disasters, Europe will continue to see millions seeking to enter its relative security and prosperity every decade in the years to come.
In the last few decades, politicians pandering to people’s fear of immigrants have in every way made the problems of immigration worse. By criticizing immigration, they have marginalized immigrants and discouraged efforts to invest adequately in integrating immigrant populations and improving their education and job prospects. The failure to create institutions to manage immigration as a positive resource has left migrants within Europe and especially their children discouraged and often hostile and estranged; at the same time the lack of preparation has left Europe to wallow in chaos when a massive tide of immigrants arrives. The experience of the last decade should have proved that immigration pressures cannot be wished away simply by criticizing them.
If European leaders can work together to manage an orderly process that treats immigrants as a potential resource, just as Australia, Canada, and other countries have done, Europe can adjust to being a region of immigration and benefit from it. But if Europe continues to resist, and believe it can somehow avoid being a region of immigration, its failure to deal with reality will lead only to more chaos on its borders and discord and violence within them.
There is a right way to think about the migration puzzle. It is to realize that Europe does not have an immigration problem; it has an integration problem. Most European nations already have significant immigrant populations. Even if Europe were to somehow halt all immigration tomorrow, it would still have to deal with the millions of foreign-born already there, and their children and grandchildren. Those millions need to become productive and harmonious members of European society, or they will be a liability and source of conflict.
If Europe can solve its integration problem then the number of immigrants will not be a problem. That number, currently five to eight percent in most countries, is modest and can still grow without causing problems if immigrants have clear paths to becoming integral and prosperous members of their new societies. Immigration pressures will not go away, no matter what Europe desires. The real choice is whether to respond to those pressures well or badly. Making the right choice, to focus on supporting orderly integration and treating immigrants as a resource rather than a threat, is the only way that Europe can secure its borders and its future.
Jack Goldstone is an expert on revolutions at the Woodrow Wilson Center and George Mason University and a global fellow at PS21. He is the author of Revolutions: A Very Short Introduction.
PS21 is a non-national, non-ideological, non-governmental organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.