Fear is on the rise in Europe. The refugee crisis has sparked the revival of far-right movements and empowered anti-immigration voices. The unending flow of refugees has forced the international community to face serious ethical questions and challenged the functioning and the spirit of the EU. Public figures such as French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, have argued that the current situation gravely threatens the EU and the Schengen Agreement.
It is understandable that such mass migration will cause widespread political and social debate. However it is important not to give in to the language of fear and simplification. Doing so clouds our judgement and does little to solve the problem. Whilst there are many false assumptions about the recent refugee crisis, here I address four of the most prominent misconceptions.
FALSE ASSUMPTION #1: The refugee crisis is an immigrant crisis
The refugee crisis is not an immigration crisis. Since January 2015, 78% of the arrivals have been from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq where huge numbers of people have fled from war. In these cases, semantics are crucial. The choice of words influences our attitudes towards the crisis and the way we think about solutions.
The turmoil in these countries is devastating. Civilian flight from Syria has led to the biggest displacement crisis in the world. More than half of the population is displaced and many are living in countries with limited resources such as Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. Iraq is also facing an acute humanitarian crisis with more than 8 million people requiring immediate humanitarian support. In Afghanistan more than 1 million children are acutely malnourished and food insecurity affects nearly 8 million people. Half a million children in Afghanistan die of preventable diseases every year.
Understanding the cause and therefore the nature of the crisis, a refugee crisis, highlights the moral duty of supporting people fleeing war and violence. This will help to detach the issue from the highly politicized topic of immigration. Using the right terminology will also urge governments to take the right course of action in addressing the causes of this disaster — war and violence.
FALSE ASSUMPTION #2: Refugees constitute a European demographic disaster
The refugee crisis is not a European demographic disaster. The crisis in Europe is minimal compared to the rest of the world. There are nearly 60 million forcibly displaced people in the world. The proportion of refugees coming to Europe is less than 2 per cent. The vast majority of displaced people live in much poorer countries. In 2014 the top receiving countries were: Turkey, Pakistan, and Lebanon. The latter, a developing country, a 100 times smaller than the EU, has received more Syrian refugees than the 28 member countries of the EU combined, some of whom are the wealthiest countries in the world. More than 1.2 million Syrian refugees live in Lebanon and now constitute 20–25% of the state’s population.
Nor does the crisis threaten the social and religious order of Europe as some people have implied. So far, despite this relatively large displacement, refugees still constitute a mere 0.2% of the EU’s total population of 508 million. While some argue that migrant communities’ fertility rates are usually higher, research actually shows that these rates fall to the same levels as the host community within a generation.
FALSE ASSUMPTION #3: Refugees represent an imminent security threat
It is unfortunate that refugees have been accused of threatening security in Europe. This is especially the case in the aftermath of the Paris attacks in November last year. Many politicians have used this opportunity to justify their anti-immigrant rhetoric and to argue that there is a need to take action against refugees. However, refugees have absolutely nothing to do with the Paris attacks. All the parties involved were European nationals. The same can be said about other attacks in Turkey and Lebanon where refugees were not involved.
It is of course understandable to be cautious in the wake of security attacks. Yet, demonizing and scapegoating the most vulnerable may have serious and counterproductive consequences. Fear-mongering has already encouraged far-right groups which use this sentiment as justification for racism and Islamophobia, threatening the social order of communities. Hate crimes are on the rise in many parts of Europe. Last year Sweden witnessed a deadly attack on a school attended by a high number of immigrants. A teacher and student were stabbed by a far-right sympathizer. In Germany, far-right groups were reported to have organized manhunts for foreigners.
Doris Carrion, a research associate at Chatham House, argued in her article in Reuters that it is not refugees themselves that present a security threat, but rather the attitudes against them. Operating as if all refugees are dangerous is counterproductive because it further alienates them. These attitudes will play into the hands of terrorists who strive to divide various communities in Europe and elsewhere.
FALSE ASSUMPTION #4: Refugees are an economic burden
Refugees are not necessarily a burden in the receiving countries. Refugees can have a positive impact on the labor force, especially in countries with decreasing fertility rates. Since the mid-1960s, overall fertility rates have fallen across Europe. This could have serious future economic consequences for European countries. Lower fertility rates means an increasingly aged population which, in turn, shrinks the number of working-age people. Europe could actually benefit from new-comers in important sectors such as health-care and in populating rural areas emptied out by population decline and economic flight.
The issue of an ageing Europe also led Christophe Dumont, an expert on migration at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, to argue that closing the doors to immigration would have negative economic consequences. He added, in his interview with Reuters, that “for now, we can make better use of migrants who are already here, matching their skills better to labor market needs. In the longer term, it will not only be about matching skills, it will also be about numbers.” In other words, Europe’s labor force is depleting rapidly and it will soon be in dire need of new workers.
Yet, the initial impact of an increased number of asylum seekers on the labor force will depend upon the success of European countries in engaging newcomers by supporting them and ensuring their access to the labor market. Attitudes that seek to deprive refugees from the support they need to be part of the labor force are counterproductive and ironically turn refugees into the social and economic burden that they prophesize.
The above represent only four of the false assumptions that blight discussions on the refugee crisis. Failing to understand the real nature of the crisis and the actual, not imagined, challenges associated with it will help no one and would only serve to exacerbate the crisis we are trying to alleviate.