The great European refugee crisis

By Jonathan Power

Europeans really shouldn’t be worrying about the number of refugees trying to gatecrash Europe by travelling in rickety boats across the Mediterranean. The recent tragedies have the effect of inflating in our minds the numbers. In truth the numbers are not overwhelming.

The present almighty flap was triggered when, on October 3rd, 360 refugees died when their boat sank off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Over the last two decades 20,000 migrants are estimated to have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean. That’s only 200 a year. In Italy that’s less people than drown in the whole country. Most come on safer land routes.

In 2011 there were 300,000 applicants for asylum in the EU. Last year it grew, as Syria erupted, to 333,000. If every one of the 28 EU countries did its bit by taking in a few it would only amount to 12,000 each. In fact the bigger countries could easily take double that and the smaller ones could take half.

Sweden has just announced that it is giving asylum to 17,000 Syrians. Moreover, it is issuing them with permanent residency papers straight away which means they can go out and look for a job. That is the way to go.

It has been a bad few years with serious violent turmoil in the Arab Middle East and North Africa. From West to East, it has been so in Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq and Syria. But not in Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon (some as Syria spills over), Turkey, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman and Saudi Arabia. Indeed Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon are known for their hospitality to refugees.

In the immediate future, for the next two years at least, there are likely to be tens more thousands of Iraqi, Syrian and Somali refugees.

Again do the maths. Shared around Europe another 100,000 a year is not that much if every country does its bit and faces down its racists and xenophobes. One should recall how a British Conservative government in 1972 opened its doors to 60,000 fleeing Asian Ugandans, kicked out by the crazed dictator, Idi Amin. Switch on BBC World, look at the presenters and reporters and see where their children are today.

A great mistake made in the immigration debate is to conflate the numbers of refugees with immigrants coming to look for work. Most refugees are better educated and, if allowed, which often they are not, find work. Many of them want to go home if their country finds its feet again and before their children put down new roots.

Another sleight of the statistical hand is that in some countries- the UK, Holland, Germany and France particularly- xenophobic politicians add to the grand total of immigrants those EU internal migrants who are free, according to European law, to move wherever they want. In the last few years it has been mainly Poles and Romanians. But most of the Poles, having saved up enough to buy a flat, have already gone home to an economy that has weathered the current economic crisis better than most. Hopefully, the Romanians will get their economy in better shape in the next few years and go home too.

As the economic crisis in the EU is overcome the likely faster growing countries- the UK, Holland, Belgium, Austria, Germany and the Scandinavian countries- will be glad to welcome immigrants from those still mired in crisis in the southern members. Most are well educated or have good skills.

Third World economic, non-refugee, would-be immigrants do not travel far from home unless the grapevine tells them there are jobs. At the moment few are attempting their usual perilous journeys. To get worked up about what has been and assume it will always be like that is to totally misread how immigration works. Moreover, to fear “Islamisation” is to ignore the evidence that Muslim immigration for jobs peaked long ago (and the Muslim birth-rate inside the EU is falling fast).

Of course, once the European economy improves, economic migrants will start wanting to come again. Tensions and animosity will rise in the receiving countries. The answer to that is not more barriers which just lead to trafficking and exploitation even, with some, near slavery. It is to make the home society less beholden to economic immigrants to do the dirty, ill-paid jobs and to look after the native old which locals don’t like to do. This means improving the quality and pay of low paid jobs, boosting job-retraining and increasing the number of natives in the workforce by raising the retirement age to 70. It also means giving aid and dismantling trade barriers so sending countries can develop faster and end up like Mexico which these days hardly exports any workers to the US.

Perspective is everything.

Copyright: Jonathan Power 2013

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