It took a horror story about a truck full of corpses in Austria, and a poignant photo of a drowned child, to raise the pity of the world. Yet trouble has been brewing in Europe’s welfare states – and the US – for years.
Resentment at immigrants has been rising for years, but the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees in Europe this year has led to an alarming rise in xenophobia. Combined with economic malaise and decades of social pressure to promote diversity, the mix has become heady, and potentially explosive.
In 2014, European Union member states received 626,000 asylum applications, the highest in more than 20 years. This year, Germany alone expects up to 800,000 asylum seekers.
After Greece and Bulgaria erected fences on external land borders with Turkey, many would-be migrants took to the sea. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that more than 366,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean Sea in 2015, compared to 216,000 for the whole of last year, and fewer than 60,000 in 2013. Some 2,800 migrants lost their lives at sea this year.
More than half of the migrants hail from Syria, where the violent oppression of political opposition by the regime of Bashar Al-Assad has given way to an even worse civil war against the barbaric insurgency of Islamic State (IS). Most of the other half comes from other hotspots of war, corruption, and socialism, such as Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Nigeria, Yemen, and Somalia.
An outpouring of sympathy for refugees who risk their lives to cross into Europe has seen many countries agree to accept a certain quota of asylum seekers. The political left is not inconsistent when it talks about compassion and human dignity. On the right, there is a groundswell of antipathy towards foreigners, however, and a revival of a kind of white consciousness that is reminiscent of the open and pervasive racism of bygone eras. While the concern has been notable, so has the scorn of those who believe immigrants are just after free stuff (warning: very offensive image), pose a security threat, will transform entire countries, or even threaten Western civilisation. And for all the nice-sounding public speeches by political leaders, many of them agree that this cannot go on.
Wealthy European countries balk at admitting more migrants, in some cases representing only a small fraction of a percent of their population. By contrast, according to the UNHCR, Turkey hosts 1.6-million refugees, Pakistan has 1.5-million, tiny Lebanon gives shelter to 1.2-million, and even Iran hosts around a million.
The anti-immigrant tide is not restricted to Europe. In the US, Donald Trump, a billionaire candidate for the Republican Party nomination for president, has come out as an unlikely champion of the working class. He has been riding a wave of popular resentment about the threat immigrants allegedly pose to American jobs, wages and security, and is offering hardline policies designed to restrict and reverse immigration, primarily from Mexico.
Much of the rise of this xenophobic attitude is related to the weak global economy. Foreigners often get the blame for economic hardship, both in South Africa (as I’ve written about before) and abroad.
Ironically, however, the political left may be in part to blame for the reactionary rise of white racism on the right. In an essay for the high-brow magazine The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf argues that the campaign against so-called ‘colour-blindness’, in favour of inculcating an acute consciousness of white privilege, is backfiring. While it correctly recognises that racial disparities continue to disadvantage blacks in the absence of formal discrimination, the overt focus on white identity has rekindled a dormant sense of collective racial beleaguerment among right-wingers who see immigrants as a threat to their economic or cultural security. Far from reconciling races previously at loggerheads, it has sharpened the conflict.
This suggests that the ‘migrant crisis’ of Europe, like Trump’s campaign, reflects a far more complex and portentous undercurrent than an emotive photograph or a sensational news headline can convey.
In an ideal world, in which free individuals compete on an equal basis to provide the goods and services society needs, national borders the way we know them would be an anachronism. Of course, there are administrative reasons for regions to be demarcated, primarily to do with collecting the tax required to maintain civil order, but that does not have to imply a barrier to freedom of movement.
People naturally gravitate to where they believe opportunity to lie, and where they can live a life free of fear, violence and persecution. It is not wrong of them to do so. Keeping people bottled up in places that suffer under oppressive, corrupt or socialist regimes, where poverty, disease, war and famine rule, is inhumane by definition.
Conversely, the wealthy who feel that bustling commercial and industrial centres do not provide the quality of life they seek are free to move to the gentle suburbs, rustic rural areas, or even pleasant foreign climes. Why should only the leisured classes have freedom of movement, when for the working poor it can be a matter of survival?
The reason it doesn’t work this way in reality is because the wealthy elites have constructed elaborate welfare states to guarantee certain insurance and essential services, for which they pay handsomely. However poorly provided, the security of knowing there’s a social safety net is both a luxury they do not want to forgo, and a buffer against an uprising by the poor. They feel – with some justification – that foreigners have no right to take advantage of what they paid for.
The working classes lucky enough to have been born into these societies have bought into these arguments, but also have other reasons for fearing immigration. Less secure in their employment and financial position, they feel – again rightly so – that foreigners bring competition for their jobs. They also believe immigrants use social services that are intended for citizens. They agree with the perception that immigrants bring with them crime and a deterioration in living standards.
Like with racists on the right and race-conscious social justice campaigners on the left, the irony is that in the long run, both sides are wrong.
The rich world is already paying dearly for its extravagant socialist utopias. They’ve been borrowing from future generations, and the result is that most major nations are saddled with unsustainable sovereign debt and a legacy of printing money to paper over the cracks that is fast catching up with them. To make matters worse, the restrictions on migration and low fertility rates have caused populations to age alarmingly, considering that their entire pension system is based not on savings and investment, but on the premise that today’s shrinking working population pays for today’s growing number of retirees.
For the working classes, too, many of the negative myths about migrants need to be dispelled.
The stereotype of migrants as poor and displaced people, who would stay home if they had enough development and foreign aid, is false – even if top politicians parrot this idea. Many, in fact, are migrating because they are getting wealthier. This isn’t as counter-intuitive as it may seem. The poor usually do not have the means to travel, while the upwardly mobile can afford an ambition to improve their geographic lot in life. Statistics show that emigration rises as countries develop, and the largest numbers of migrants come from upper-middle-income countries.
There is also no evidence that immigration is a systematic threat to the economies of destination countries. On the contrary, immigrants are generally hard-working and ambitious, and bring in more tax revenue than they consume in social services. This is true for the US, where social services are fewer, the population is younger, and the productivity rate is higher than across the pond, but it is also true for European countries. The club of rich countries known as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has a neat set of bullet points about the economic impacts of migrants:
- Migrants accounted for 47% of the increase in the workforce in the US and 70% in Europe over the past 10 years.
- Migrants fill important niches both in fast-growing and declining sectors of the economy.
- Like the native-born, young migrants are better educated than those nearing retirement.
- Migrants contribute significantly to labour-market flexibility, notably in Europe.
The public purse
- Migrants contribute more in taxes and social contributions than they receive in benefits.
- Labour migrants have the most positive impact on the public purse.
- Employment is the single biggest determinant of migrants’ net fiscal contribution.
- Migration boosts the working-age population.
- Migrants arrive with skills and contribute to human capital development of receiving countries.
- Migrants also contribute to technological progress.
It is true that some immigrants may pose a security risk, especially if they arrived under cover of the masses of refugees from places where IS holds sway. It is also true that some migrants will fail to find employment, and some will turn to drugs and crime. But there is no evidence that they do so in greater numbers than local citizens, as documented in this list of debunked myths about immigration.
The vast majority of immigrants are just looking to better their lives, and by doing so, they inevitably improve the economic conditions of the society around them. Still, paranoid theories about a ‘Trojan Horse’ invasion of Europe are not entirely without merit, which makes the political situation volatile.
Instead of bolting the doors, however, Europe should make every effort to accommodate and integrate new arrivals. Those who care about social justice on the left would do well to placate their opponents on the right, if only as an effort in realpolitik intended to allay xenophobic fears and soften their attitudes towards immigrants.
Outside the industrial heartland of Germany and a few smaller countries, Europe is notoriously unproductive compared to the large sovereign debt burden run up by costly socialist policies. Far from destroying Europe, as some fear, migrants will likely raise national productivity. They, along with a heavy dose of political and economic reform, are what Europe needs to survive.
While millions of refugees remain under the protection of Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia and Jordan, Europe’s parsimonious intake is not only inhumane, it is economically inadvisable. It endorses public sentiment against immigrants, which bolsters a dangerous kind of defensive laager mentality. This finds expression in nationalism and racism. This, in turn, sparks anger and resentment among migrants and their countries of origin, fuelling the animosity and violence directed towards rich countries.
It’s a vicious cycle, and a dangerous one at that. Those same sentiments have provoked wars and genocides, not only around the world, but in the heart of Europe itself.
Both sides of the political aisle need to find a more sophisticated way to deal with their social, economic and political problems than simply preaching about white privilege and race-consciousness, or complaining that Europe is crumbling under the devastating impact of mass immigration. Each, despite believing that their cause is just and their intentions good, only serves to polarise the public.
Migrants should pose no crisis to Europe, or any other country, even in a depressed economy. The true crisis is the rise of white consciousness on the right, spurred on by the racial sanctimony of the left. If 9/11 signalled an impending ‘clash of civilisations’, heightened tensions caused by such political rhetoric only pours fuel on the fire. DM