Argument

Europe Needs to Let the Migrants In

Why an influx of new blood would be a shot in the arm for the aging continent.

French riot police stand on the side of the road to prevent migrants from approaching lorries on the road leading to the ferry port in Calais, northern France, on August 5, 2015. Britain and France were to announce a new "command and control centre" on August 20 for tackling smuggling gangs in Calais, where thousands of migrants desperate to cross the Channel are living in slum-like conditions.  AFP** PHOTO / PHILIPPE HUGUEN        (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images)
French riot police stand on the side of the road to prevent migrants from approaching lorries on the road leading to the ferry port in Calais, northern France, on August 5, 2015. Britain and France were to announce a new "command and control centre" on August 20 for tackling smuggling gangs in Calais, where thousands of migrants desperate to cross the Channel are living in slum-like conditions. AFP** PHOTO / PHILIPPE HUGUEN (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images)

The barbarians have breached the gates. Europe is being overrun. Our civilization and our prosperity are at risk.

That’s the essence of the moral panic about unwanted asylum-seekers that is gripping Europe this summer. It’s all wrong. Rather than seeing these brave, enterprising newcomers as a threat, Europeans ought to welcome the contributions that they could make.

Tears over migrants’ dying while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea have given way to fears about the impact of those who make it to Europe alive. Britain’s foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, warns of migrants “marauding” around the French port of Calais while trying to get to the United Kingdom through the Channel Tunnel. “Europe can’t protect itself, preserve its standard of living and social infrastructure if it has to absorb millions of migrants from Africa,” he asserted. Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s previous president and potentially its next one, compares the arrival of migrants to your house flooding. Far-right parties claim that Europe is at a breaking point.

There’s no denying that many more desperate foreigners are seeking a better life in Europe. Some 340,000 people have attempted to enter the European Union without permission so far this year through July. That compares with 280,000 in total last year. But the EU spans 28 countries with 508 million people, so the unwanted new arrivals this year amount to only 0.07 percent of the population. In a crowd of 1,500 people, only one would be an unwanted newcomer.

Most of those seeking refuge in Europe come from Syria, Afghanistan, and Eritrea. Syrians are fleeing a murderous civil war and the barbaric butchery of the Islamic State. Afghanistan, from which U.S. combat troops withdrew at the end of last year, is wracked by violence from the Taliban, together with its al Qaeda allies, and the Islamic State’s local affiliate. Eritrea is a brutal dictatorship.

The United Nations’ refugee agency, UNHCR, reckons that the world is experiencing its biggest refugee crisis since World War II. It counts 59.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. They include 19.5 million refugees (of whom 14.4 million fall under the UNHCR’s mandate and the remaining 5.1 million are Palestinian), 1.8 million asylum-seekers, and 38.2 million people displaced within their own countries.

But this global refugee crisis mostly affects countries outside prosperous, secure Europe. Six of every seven refugees are in poor countries. Turkey hosts 1.6 million, more than the 1.5 million scattered across Europe. Tiny Lebanon has received 1.2 million — that’s more than one refugee for every four local people. Meanwhile, Britain is in a frenzy over some 3,000 people in Calais.

The numbers seeking refuge in Europe are also small compared with the many millions of Europeans displaced after World War II and the millions more who moved after the collapse of communism and the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. How quickly Europeans forget!

For sure, the new arrivals can place big strains on the small communities in which they land. Most unwanted migrants reach Europe across the Mediterranean. Of the 240,000 arriving through the Mediterranean so far this year, 135,000 have arrived in Greece, which suffering its own crisis. They tend to land on four small islands near Turkey — Lesbos, Chios, Samos, and Kos — which are struggling to cope. But most newcomers want to, and do, move on.

First they need to reach the Greek mainland. Then they move up though the Balkans to Hungary. From there they can travel freely across the 26 countries in the Schengen Area, which covers most of the EU and some neighboring countries too. Even though Hungary is mostly a transit country rather than a final destination, its authoritarian nationalist government is building a razor-wire fence along its border with Serbia to try to keep migrants out.

The other main route into Europe is from Libya to Italy. The sea crossing is longer and more dangerous. So far this year, 2,300 people have died trying to cross the treacherous Mediterranean waters in often rickety, overladen boats operated by callous smugglers trying to dodge detection. That compares with 105 recorded migrant deaths on the border between the United States and Mexico. But those who make it to Italy then find it relatively easy to move on to France, Germany, and beyond.

With the notable exception of Sweden, most European countries do their best to pass the “burden” of receiving asylum-seekers on to others. Officially, asylum-seekers are supposed to seek refuge in the first safe country they reach. But few want to stay in crisis-hit Greece, which doesn’t want to receive them, so officials often turn a blind eye to those crossing the country. That raises hackles in richer Northern Europe, where most asylum-seekers end up.

Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, says the refugee crisis “will concern us far more than Greece and the stability of the euro.” Pointedly, the German government has just nearly doubled its projection for how many asylum-seekers the country will receive this year — to 800,000. That is implausibly high; so far this year, Germany has received 260,000, many of whom will be rejected. But the political point is clear. Germany’s interior minister warns that border-free travel within Europe cannot survive without a common asylum policy.

Prompted by the European Commission, EU leaders have grudgingly made a start. They have agreed to share out 32,000 asylum-seekers; only Britain, Austria, and Hungary refused to join in. Slovakia’s nationalist government says it will only accept 200 — provided they are Christian.

But instead of panicking about being overrun or fighting over who should bear the “burden” of new arrivals, Europe ought to welcome the contribution that they could make.

Europe needs migrants. Its working-age population is declining, while the number of pensioners that European workers need to support is soaring as the postwar baby-boom generation retires en masse. Young, hardworking, tax-paying newcomers would be a shot in the arm for Europe’s senescent economies. They would help spread the huge burden of public debt over more shoulders, to the benefit of the existing population. They can do tough jobs that young Europeans with higher aspirations spurn, like picking fruit and caring for the elderly. Many have valuable skills that can be put to good use, in hospitals, in engineering, or in computing. Others are likely to become entrepreneurs. Migration is a bit like starting a business: It’s a risky venture that takes hard work to make it pay off. And for those who arrive in a new country without contacts or a conventional career, it’s the natural way to get ahead. Last but not least, newcomers’ diversity and dynamism can help spur new ideas, on which Europe’s future growth depends.

Desperate and enterprising people are not going to stop coming to Europe. So instead of leaving them in the hands of ruthless smugglers, causing chaos and death on and within Europe’s borders, surely it would be better to open safe, legal channels for people to move through. Freedom of movement across the EU works well for EU citizens. Sweden allows businesses to hire workers of any skill level from across the world on two-year renewable visas. Europe should let people come work here.

Image credit: PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images

Philippe Legrain is the founder of OPEN, an international think-tank on openness issues, and a senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics’ European Institute. Previously economic adviser to the President of the European Commission from 2011 to 2014, he is the author of four critically acclaimed books, including Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them and European Spring: Why Our Economies and Politics Are in a Mess — and How to Put Them Right.

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