David Cameron labelled them a 'swarm'. Thousands of them have died in the Mediterranean. Border fences are being built to keep them out: Hungary, Spain, Bulgaria, Calais. The Slovakian Government will take a handful of them but only if they are ‘Christian’ (apparently they don’t do Muslims or Mosques). And all the while millions are being spent on a perverse mini-stimulus – as 'defence contractors, outsourcing companies and security forces find willing buyers for their security-based “solutions”, bringing new surveillance systems, patrol vessels, co-ordination centres and detention facilities to the market with little scrutiny or due diligence.' A rational political and economic response gives way to militarisation.
This is what has been labelled the ‘migration crisis’ – as hundreds of thousands are seeking refuge, asylum, work and a better life while risking oppression and even their lives to come to Europe.
Much has been written on this subject – including this insightful analysis by Dr. Vincent Durac. I don’t intend to survey all the issues or appropriate responses as this crisis has many origins and dynamics and will require substantial doses of enlightened national policy combined with international cooperation. But here are a couple of thoughts.
First, the men, women and children that make up Cameron’s swarm – they are not a problem, they are a solution. They are a solution to Europe’s ageing demographic, skill base and employment crisis.
A key part of this is the fact that Europe is growing old. Using the EU’s main scenario demographic projection, we see that the EU’s total population will rise by 17 million while the number of over 65s will rise by 54 million. Working age population will fall by 34 million. 12 of the 28 EU countries are actually projected to experience an overall fall in their populations. With a higher proportion of elderly and a falling number of working age men and women, Europe is set to suffer a slow age crash.
Portugal is expected to have the highest proportion of elderly – more than a third, followed closely by Germany. Ireland is expected to see a doubling in this category while the country with the biggest increase is Slovakia (they might want to revisit their sectarian migrant policy).
Europe needs working age people, young people, to maintain their demographic balance and their labour force; there are hundreds of thousand willing, wanting, desperate to play that role. Are we so blind that we can’t see a solution here?
There is an argument used by anti-immigrant parties and commentators that refers to the ‘cost’ of migrants. However, there are so many studies that show that immigrants play a positive role in the economy – they take-up work, start businesses, and pay taxes (if readers know of an Irish study please let me know). Chris Johns wrote recently in the Irish Times, after surveying various studies showing the economic benefits of immigration:
‘So, those politicians who lean on economic arguments to reduce immigration really should to be made to look elsewhere. This gets us on to difficult territory because the first thing that anti-immigrations types are keen to prove is that they are driven by reason, not racism. But that reasoning cannot include economics.”
Still others will try to use shock numbers (swarm) to show that Europe cannot accommodate so many. However, this doesn’t stand up either. Here, Dr. Durac puts this issue into context.
"Four years of conflict in Syria have led to population movement on a scale that has not been seen since the second World War. Out of a total population of 23 million, more than four million have fled Syria’s borders and another 7.6 million are displaced internally.
By last June, more than 300,000 Syrians had applied for asylum in Europe – just under half of these were in Germany and Sweden alone. However, the challenge faced by the countries of the EU is dwarfed by that with which Syria’s neighbours must contend.
86 per cent of the world’s refugees are in developing countries. The Syrian case is no exception – 94 per cent of Syrian refugees are in neighbouring countries in the Middle East, which already face significant political and economic problems . . . Turkey has the highest number of Syrian refugees at 1.8 million, followed by Lebanon with 1.17 million. There are more than one million more in Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.”
Hundreds of thousands in an EU of 500 million people; compare that with millions in smaller, much poorer, countries.
What can Ireland do? First, we can work to build a common European policy for this is an issue which cannot be resolved by national governments acting individually and often in conflict with each other. This common policy should be based on opening up extensive legal channels for immigration to replace the dangerous, human-trafficking channels which exploits and endangers so many people.
Second, we can take our own initiatives. The deployment of the LE Niamh has saved many lives in the Mediterranean. Ireland has already agreed to take in 600 asylum seekers over the next two years, in addition to plans for the resettlement of 520 Syrians. We can easily increase these numbers. However, this will require radically reforming our discredited direct provision system.
But we can also take a particular initiative – specifically in regards to the ongoing tragedy in Calais. This may not be on our doorstep but it is on our neighbours’ doorstep. An estimated 3,000 refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants have been trapped in Calais for years, attempting to seek entry into the UK in dangerous ways through the Chunnel and in the back of lorries. While most are single men there are a number of families and children. Ireland could offer, at least, to take in the families. This would show leadership and might act as a catalyst to the UK and France to come up with a common solution. When anti-immigrant parties and organisations give out about the ‘cost’ of immigrants there is an irony here; the UK, in particular, is spending millions to keep people trapped in these camps rather than letting these people make millions for the UK economy by granting them entry.
There are a number of other issues involved: winning popular support for a more open immigration policy, effective integration policies, the replacement of the direct provision system. And at the back of it all are the clear benefits to both immigrants and the host country when we have effective systems. Everyone wins.
But the greatest benefit is to our humanity. The obscenity of closed borders, make-shift camps, dangerous journeys, wall-building and extreme nationalist and even racist politics is an indictment of a skewed and degraded social culture. There is an imperative to challenge this, especially with the rise of nationalist parties throughout Europe. We can challenge this on the grounds of our need for young people, the benefits of immigration and a generosity that should be the hallmark of Europe in the 21str century.
This will not be easy. Europe needs immigrants to create greater economic prosperity; immigrants need Europe to promote their own prosperity and life-chances. We can mutually overcome our needs but only if we do it together.