Changing the fundamentals of the European debate about forced migration

BY Lisa Kadel

Looking at Europe during the past few years, it seems like the continent just can’t get past operating in crisis mode. The sovereign debt crisis, Ukraine, Brexit and the rise of nationalism and anti-EU sentiments are just some examples of the numerous struggles governments and societies are facing. It is not surprise that the most recent influx of refugees is seen as a crisis as well. In fact, “crisis” is one of the more positive terms used regularly to describe the current situation. A crisis can be managed, while expressions like “flood” or “wave” dehumanize refugees and imply inevitable destruction unless we build walls to keep them out.

On the other hand, many continue to advocate for compassionate policies for those fleeing conditions that most Europeans cannot even begin to imagine. But even the strongest commitments to welcoming refugees are overwhelmingly meant as acts of graciousness, and there is a clear distinction between givers and receivers: the selfless Europeans helping the pitiful refugees. Hardly anybody is thinking in terms of empowerment and the potential to bring positive change for both sides. Yet making these the basis of the debate leads to a picture very different from the one currently dominating the media and people’s minds.

This is not to say that hosting refugees does not incur costs on a society. In Europe, but much more in countries closer to regions of violent conflict, the influx of forced migrants puts a strain on budget and infrastructure. However, we need to change how we address these issues. Rather than focus on limiting immigration, we should adapt current policies to the new situation. This will allow us to create a situation in which the protection of the physical integrity and dignity of those seeking asylum is ensured, while costs are kept to a minimum or even, in the long term, off-set by gains.

Thinking in terms of empowering individuals and utilizing their potential leads to a vision of refugees who are legally working and earning enough to support their families. This enables them to control their own lives, contribute to society, and thus helps to maintain or regain a sense of dignity. Immigrants enjoy the same protections against exploitation as nationals.

Work also helps make personal connections between immigrants and natives, facilitating mutual understanding and thus the peaceful coexistence of cultures. This benefits both communities rather than alienating the different groups from one another. In addition, host countries would save the money that they are currently spending on feeding and housing refugees that are not allowed to work, and would even gain tax revenue. The additional workforce would support economic growth and off-set the imbalances in the social support system that an aging society creates.

Of course reality is complicated and fundamental change does not happen overnight. But with realistic expectations and open-mindedness, willingness to address the real roots of domestic problems that are commonly mistakenly blamed on immigrants, it is possible to adapt legal and economic frameworks to make change for the better.

Most refugees will stay in a host country for extended periods of time, maybe even forever. Europe, with its “guest workers” in the second half of the 20th century, has already experienced how assuming migrants will only stay temporarily  can lead to flawed integration. Refugees, as well as other immigrants, need to be allowed to maintain their cultural and religious identity. In accordance with the law, everybody should be able to follow whatever cultural practices they prefer. Integration does not mean assimilation, but requires efforts to understand each other from both sides. If the law does not reflect what a society defines as its non-negotiable “core values”, it can be changed. But expecting immigrants to adhere to extremely vague rules that nobody can specify is simply unfair. So is holding them to higher standards than the native population. Some immigrants will commit crimes, just as some natives do. But nationality or residence status should not determine how someone is judged for their actions, morally and legally.

Immigrants are often used as scapegoats for all kinds of problems societies face, from failing social security systems and unemployment to gender inequality and gender-based violence. It is necessary to explore and address the real roots of these problems. Politicians need to withstand the temptation to capitalize on existing fears and prejudice to gain votes. While it is of course necessary to listen to constituents, there is a difference between listening to concerns seriously, and fueling hate and prejudice. The latter hurts not only those who are labelled as “the other”, but also society as a whole as it creates division, hinders integration, and diverts attention from the real causes of problems.

Moreover, legal frameworks need to be adapted and the economy must be enabled to absorb the additional workforce. Residential permits need to be issued for time periods long enough to make learning a new language and skills worthwhile for the refugees, and for employers to hire and train them. Innovation is needed to efficiently deal with more technical questions including recognition of foreign education, cost-efficient and quality language learning opportunities to large numbers of people, and systems to efficiently match people with jobs. To avoid an increase in unemployment and a race to the bottom in social standards, investment to create new jobs and improvement of social protection for workers, such as minimum wages and protection against dismissal, are key.

These are not simple tasks. They imply challenging the dominant mindset, which is never easy. Deep-rooted resentment among the population against immigration in general, especially from majority Muslim countries, must be overcome. But Europe, one of the richest regions in the world, without a doubt has the resources to make the innovations necessary in order to create a win-win situation. This is the time to make a choice between affirming liberalism and human rights and building a strong framework to face the future on the one hand, and failing people in need, looking the other way and negating the realities of globalization on the other.