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Symposium 2015

Solution for Migrants Knocking on Europe's Doors: Towards a Coherent Response to Irregular Immigration

The Challenge

Tens of thousands of irregular migrants, mostly from Africa and the Middle East, set out for Europe each year. If they reach Europe alive, most ultimately manage to stay here - irrespective of whether ...

Tens of thousands of irregular migrants, mostly from Africa and the Middle East, set out for Europe each year. If they reach Europe alive, most ultimately manage to stay here - irrespective of whether they are granted political asylum or refugee status. However, many irregular immigrants first have to criss-cross Europe in search of somewhere safe to live. Later, many live off welfare for several years because they are not allowed to work. Furthermore, EU member states have been slow to support those afflicted by humanitarian crises in their neighborhood, such as the war in Syria. In addition, there are almost no legal employment opportunities for low or medium-skilled immigrants from outside the EU. This situation calls for a comprehensive policy response by the EU and its member states to address humanitarian crises, apply uniform standards for protecting refugees and for deciding on political asylum and refugee status, and provide more legal employment opportunities for non-EU immigrants.

Tackling the Deaths and Chaos on and within Europe’s Borders by Opening Up Safe, Legal Channels for People to Claim Asylum and Come Work in Europe

Europe needs dynamic young workers, innovators and entrepreneurs. Its working-age population is shrinking, while the number of pensioners to support is soaring and public debts continue to pile up. Allowing many more political refugees and economic migrants to come work in Europe can be part of the solution. To avoid deaths and chaos on and within Europe’s borders—and in its economic self-interest—Europe should open up safe, legal channels for people to claim asylum and come work here.

Around 500,000 people have entered the European Union without permission so far this year. That is many more than the 240,000 who arrived in 2014, but still only 0.1% of the EU population. Europe is not being overrun. Indeed, Turkey alone is home to more refugees than the entire EU, and globally six in seven refugees are in developing countries.

Yet, the EU’s response to the refugee crisis is a shambles. Because it is impossible to enter the EU safely and legally, entry into the EU has, in effect, been outsourced to criminal gangs with little respect for human life. While the EU’s underfunded search-and-rescue programs in the Mediterranean Sea saves many lives, too many still die. Aylan Kurdi, the drowned Syrian toddler who washed up on a Turkish beach, is one of 2,873 known deaths so far in 2015 (as of 24 September). EU rules stipulating that refugees should be granted asylum in the first EU country they reach are unworkable and unfair; since asylum seekers mostly arrive in southern Europe and want to head north, Greece and Italy ignore the rules and facilitate their passage.

While it was laudable of Germany unilaterally to suspend its application of those rules and pledge to accept all arriving Syrian refugees, neither Germany nor EU authorities offer them safe passage. Now a Hungarian razor-wire fence stands in their way, while Germany has reimposed border controls, prompting its neighbors to do likewise and leaving the Schengen Agreement in tatters.

Germany has also strong-armed recalcitrant governments to accept a European Commission plan to resettle 120,000 refugees across the EU, on top of the 40,000 to be resettled voluntarily. Yet, this won’t make much difference: some 156,000 people entered the EU without permission in August alone, bringing the total in 2015 to more than 500,000. The resettlement plan is also flawed. If, for instance, the nasty nationalist government of Slovakia is forced to accept refugees, how welcome will they feel? And what is to stop them moving on?

The priority instead should be to change the narrative about refugees and migrants: they are not a burden to be shared, they are an opportunity to be welcomed. Humanitarian policies are more likely to be generous if they have popular appeal and align with economic self-interest. The numbers are relatively small: arrivals so far this year amount to only 0.1% of the EU population. While welcoming refugees requires an initial investment, the fiscal cost is relatively small and could be met out of international-development budgets, emergency funds or the EU budget. And the sooner that refugees can start working, the sooner that investment will pay dividends. It is perverse that most EU countries ban asylum seekers from working; they should stop doing so.

While it would be desirable to agree a generous common EU asylum policy where each government is persuaded of the merits of allowing people fleeing persecution and seeking a better life to come work and contribute to society, it is not essential. Since newcomers are a benefit, not a cost, those countries which choose to welcome more will be doing themselves a favor, while those that don’t will miss out. So countries could proceed through enhanced cooperation, or individually.

What is essential, though, is that refugees and migrants should be able to reach welcoming countries such as Germany in a safe and orderly fashion. This could be achieved by enabling people to claim asylum or apply for a work visa from European consulates abroad, or online.

Providing refuge to people fleeing persecution is a humanitarian obligation, as well as a legal requirement of the United Nations’ Geneva Convention on refugees. Welcoming both asylum seekers and other migrants is also in Europe’s economic self-interest.

Young, hard-working, taxpaying newcomers would be a shot in the arm for Europe’s senescent economies. Just over 500 million people live in the European Union—and without migration, the working-age population (aged 15–64) is projected to fall by 8.1 million by 2020, while the old-age population (aged 65 and over) will rise by 8.4 million. By 2030, the working-age population would be 28.9 million lower and the old-age population 27.9 million higher. The demographic changes in Germany are particularly stark. Without migration, by 2030 the working-age population will have shrunk by a sixth—8.7 million people—while the old-age population will have grown by more than a quarter (4.7 million people) and the overall population will have shrunk by 5 million people.

Newcomers have a lot to contribute. They can do tough jobs that young Europeans with higher aspirations spurn, like pick fruit and care for the elderly, the fastest area of employment growth in Europe. Many have valuable skills that can be put to good use—for instance, in hospitals, as engineers 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.

For those who arrive in a new country without contacts or a conventional career, it’s the natural way to get ahead. Newcomers to the UK are twice as likely as locals to start businesses—and the same could be true elsewhere if governments made it easier to start a business. Newcomers’ diverse perspectives and experiences and dynamism can also help spark new ideas and technologies, on which Europe’s future growth depends. Nearly one in two start-ups in Silicon Valley have an immigrant cofounder; Sergey Brin, who cofounded Google, arrived in the US as a child refugee. How many Brins does Europe turn away—and at what cost?

OECD studies show that overall migrants are typically net contributors to public finances. So, far from endangering European welfare states, they can help pay for them. Newcomers would help spread the huge burden of public debt over more shoulders, to the benefit of the existing population.
It’s also a myth that migrants harm local workers. There isn’t a fixed number of jobs to go around: newcomers don’t just take jobs, they also create them—when they spend their wages and in complementary lines of work (not to mention as creative sparks and entrepreneurs). Overall, migrants tend to have a positive impact on local wages, precisely because of those complementarities, as many studies—including by the OECD and by Giovanni Peri and colleagues—have shown. Fears that immigrants are going to take local people’s jobs are akin to earlier ones that women working would take men’s jobs. Yet, most women now work and so do most men.

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 up safe, legal channels for people to move. If the EU is not willing to agree to this collectively, Germany should blaze a trail by doing so. It would do wonders for Germany’s economy, as well as for its international reputation—not to mention the refugees and migrants themselves.

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