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Overcoming the European refugee crisis

With no sign of the refugee crisis slowing down, here are five key principles for action which are both more humane towards migrants, and more broadly supported by the European publics.

Refugees arriving on the island of Lesbos. Demotix/Michael Debets. All rights reserved.

With hundreds of thousands of refugees entering the European Union (EU) this year alone, and many millions more planning their trips in Africa and Asia, there is no longer any doubt that Europe is facing a refugees crisis. That crisis is further heightened by the complete absence of credible political solutions, strengthening the already widespread impression that the mainstream politicians are unable to deal with major political challenges, which has led to a boost in support for anti-immigration politicians.

As so often, the most consistent positions, which are overrepresented in the (social) media, are the two most extreme and utopian. Neither the complete absence nor the complete control of borders is a realistic option. Leaving aside the practical problems involved in implementing these policies, there will not be enough public support for them once their consequences become visible to the public – most notably, a significant decrease in welfare state provisions in the case of completely open borders and a significant increase in brutality towards and casualties of migrants and refugees in the case of completely closed borders.

The vast majority of people are looking for a convincing option that is set between these two extremes, but cannot find one. They hear politicians of left and right deny realities by underestimating number of refugees, and propose ad hoc ‘solutions,’ aimed at dealing with the most urgent situation without developing a broader plan for the underlying causes. This is in itself not that surprising, as the refugee crisis is an extremely complex and fundamental phenomenon that goes well beyond the Syrian civil war and the rise of Islamic State. Syrians only constitute a minority of all refugees that came to Europe in 2015, with other large groups coming from countries such as Afghanistan, Eritrea, Kosovo, and Sudan. And while the number have spiked since the start of the Syrian civil war, immigrants and refugees have been regularly causing political problems for European countries for decades now.

Given the continuing economic and political problems in many parts of the world, and the planet’s ever-growing interconnectedness, there is no reason to assume the immigration pressure will significantly decrease in the near future. Simply closing your borders, as a growing group of notably East Central European countries have done in the past months, simply shifts the problem, and doesn’t solve it. While the immediate emphasis should be on preventing current and future refugees from freezing to death in the upcoming winter, this should not keep politicians and others concerned from starting the long-overdue debate on a comprehensive long-term policy.

It is encouraging to see that German Chancellor Angela Merkel hasn’t completely given up her fight for a more humane refugees policy – after slowly but steadily backtracking under fierce pressure from other European leaders, German public, and even prominent members from within her own Christian democratic party. Merkel is right that a comprehensive long-term refugees policy in any European country, irrespective whether it is a EU member state or not, will require a “bundling” of national and European measures. Here I sketch five key principles that should inform these broader European immigration policies. The overarching aim is to create an immigration policy that is both more humane towards immigrants and refugees and more broadly supported by the European publics.

1. Make a clear distinction between (economic) immigrants and (political) refugees in the discourse

One of the most confusing parts of the discussion about the “refugee crisis” is the terminology. Various terms are used by different people and sometimes by the same people interchangeably. The most common terms in the public debate are (alphabetically) asylum seekers, immigrants, migrants, and refugees. “Asylum seekers” and “refugees” are true synonyms, while “immigrants” and “migrants” are often used interchangeably, but sometimes defined differently. Most notably, in some understandings immigrants come from outside the host country with the intent to settle permanently, while migrants can also be from within the state and plan to settle temporarily. Given that many people come with the intent to stay temporarily but end up staying permanent, from the guest workers of the 1960s to the Bosnian refugees of the 1990s, I think this distinction is not particularly fruitful.

The key distinction should not be based on the intended duration but on the primary motivation of the immigration. In theory, as expressed in most public discourse, immigrants are predominantly motivated by economic concerns, while refugees are primarily driven by political concerns. In practice, a mix of economic and political concerns is almost always at the heart of a decision to immigrate – as was already the case with most East Europeans during the Cold War.

The choice of terminology is not without serious political consequences, as was recently noted in a remarkably insightful and reflective blog by Brian Malone, an online editor at Al Jazeera. Research consistently shows that people hold much more welcoming views towards political immigrants than towards economic immigrants. Similarly, the term “refugee” has a much more positive connotation that “immigrant,” which is mostly connected to economic concerns. Consequently, conflating the two has significant consequences for public support for specific immigration policies.

However, many media and politicians not only speak of “immigrants” instead of “refugees,” but even when they speak of refugees, they distinguish between “real” and “sham” refugees. Given that the emphasis in the political and public debate is on the alleged “sham refugees,” it is not surprising that many people consider “real refugees” to be the exception rather than the rule. This is not necessarily the case, however.

True, large numbers of those claiming political asylum in Europe are rejected as refugees by the receiving states, but this does not automatically mean that they are not political immigrants. In many cases they are not recognized because they came through a so-called “Safe Third Country” (a consequence of the Dublin Regulation). In other cases they are not recognized as refugees but also not repatriated, because the country of origin is too dangerous (often because of civil war), which makes them implicitly “war zone refugees” – incidentally, a group that can rely on much higher sympathy than “immigrants” among European publics.

Moreover, if European countries would have a more realistic immigration policy, i.e. one that allows for economic immigration beyond a small number of highly educated immigrants, the number of “sham refugees” would automatically decrease. Potential immigrants would no longer have to rely on either family reunion or political asylum as the two only ways to legally immigrate to an EU country.

2. Be open to refugees and strategic towards immigrants

In theory the idea of political asylum has long been individualized, referring to specific people who were individual targets of a repressive political system (think of left-wing dissidents in Pinochet’s Chile). In practice, however, most refugees that have come to Europe since the end of the Second World War were not individually targeted, but rather fled a repressive regime or (civil) war. This applies as much to the refugees from Eastern Europe during the Cold War as the refugees from Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s. Most people consider “war refugees” to be “genuine” refugees and hold a welcoming view toward them.

This is not the case for economic immigrants. As can be expected, the conflation of the immigrants and refugees mainly undermines the positive views of the latter while hardly improving the negative views of the former. Equally predictable, views towards immigrants are more positive in countries that embrace immigration, like New Zealand and the United States, than in those that do not. Officially, European countries are not “immigration countries” and several even state this explicitly, despite the reality of decades of mass immigration.

The advantages of officially accepting immigration for European countries are manifold. First, it is a better reflection of reality and therefore of what the people (think they) see around them. After all, previous waves of immigration have significantly shaped contemporary European societies and new immigrants continue to arrive through family reunion and political asylum. Second, it enables European states to regulate their immigration flows more effectively and strategically, for example by prioritizing certain types of immigrants (in terms of cultural background or practical skills), which could lead to the more successful integration of immigrants. Third, both these points will make it easier for political elites to convince the citizens that immigration is profitable for the host country. If one thinks this is utopian, I point you to Canada, which has a much larger and better integrated immigrant population than European countries, both in terms of economic success of the immigrants and acceptance by the host population.

3. Make integration policy national and immigration policy European

Whether a country is within the Schengen Area or not, it is significantly impacted by it. Hence, immigration policy, i.e. regulating who gets in, must have a strong European dimension. This is not necessarily the case for integration policy, i.e. regulating what is expected of the people who are already in. Given the national particularities and sensitivities related to integration, it is better to keep this a mainly national competency. This not only reflects the vastly different approaches toward integration within EU member state – traditionally from assimilation in France and Hungary to more (subsidized or voluntaristic) ‘multiculturalism’ in the Netherlands and United Kingdom – but also the current division of competencies within the EU, which leaves culture mostly to member states (and its regions).

Given that (very) weak internal borders are essential to the EU project, immigration policy is by necessity mostly an EU competency. After all, once someone has entered the EU, it is quite easy to move within it, in particular within the Schengen Area. Hence, the EU should develop immigration and refugees policies, obviously implemented in as democratic a manner as the EU allows for, and be predominantly responsible for patrolling the external borders. In addition, the EU should develop a distribution mechanism to ensure that each member state takes care of its proportional share of immigrants and refugees. To be clear, these will be minimal policies and individual countries are free to be more open towards either immigrants or refugees, or both.

However, we cannot simply make immigration policy an EU affair without making significant changes to some fundamental existing EU policies. First of all, the existing policies regarding so-called “Safe Third Countries” are inhumane and unfair. They lead to the EU offloading its “migrant problem” to poorer countries with a weaker infrastructure and resources, like Macedonia and Turkey, which causes inhumane conditions for refugees. Second, as we know from years of experience, most immigrants and refugees prefer to go to only a select group of EU member states – most notably Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

We have to at least temporarily restrict the free movement of immigrants and refugees to ensure that these countries are not confronted with an influx that is beyond their capacity and wishes. While this does create a difference in rights between EU citizens and immigrants/refugees, this is perfectly acceptable as long as this difference is based on citizenship (not ethnicity) and it is temporary – nor is it unprecedented within the EU, as many West European member states have temporarily restricted immigration from the new East European member states after their accession in 2004 and 2007.

The temporary lack of movement does not only ensure a more effective integration of immigrants and refugees in the individual EU member states and a fairer internal distribution within the EU in the short term, but also in the long term. After all, if immigrants and refugees are well integrated in their first EU country of residence, they have much less incentive to leave for another country after five years.

4. Significantly increase foreign aid spending 

Cutting foreign aid is a favorite trope of right-wing parties in western democracies. There is a general impression that foreign aid is not popular. This seems largely based on the situation in the US, where survey research has shown that people vastly overestimate the amount of money spent on foreign aid and, therefore, are relatively open towards cutting it. In Europe, however, support for foreign aid is very high, particularly if it comes from the EU. Hence, increasing its budget might not be as controversial as is often assumed and could be further boosted by (better) explaining what the real costs are, how the money is spent, and what the costs of the alternative scenarios are. So, what should that increased foreign aid be spent on?

There should be a massive investment in the care of refugees in their own regions. Clearly, the idea of taking care of refugees in their own regions is very popular among European politicians, but few are willing to pay the money required to do this accurately. Given that that they are driven by ad hoc opportunistic motivations, rather than a comprehensive vision, European politicians are now dependent upon the cooperation from questionable allies, like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is accused of using the Syrian refugees to “blackmail” the EU. Rather than subsidizing corrupt authoritarian leaders like Erdogan, the EU should support international organizations like Doctors without Border and create its own infrastructure to assist governments and NGOs in the region. Moreover, it must work much more closely with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which is in charge of many refugee centers in and around the conflict zones.

Through a larger financial and policy involvement in the shelter of refugees outside of Europe the EU will significantly improve the situation of both refugees and of its own citizens. The (medium term) goal of the EU’s refugee policy should be to take most of its refugees from the camps in the regions, rather than simply from the select group of refugees that make it into the EU. There are two compelling reasons for this, one practical and one moral. First, it will significantly increase the opportunity for the EU to regulate the inflow of refugees and, therefore, to better integrate them. Second, we know that the refugees that finally make it into the EU are disproportionally able-bodied, male, and middle class. This makes perfect sense, as it requires both financial means and physical strength to escape a conflict zone and travel thousands of miles to a continent that doesn’t really want you. Taking refugees directly from the regional camps will make the refugee population within the EU much more representative of that population in the region and will better protect the weakest among the weak.

Obviously, the more able-bodied and middle class refugees are only going to prefer the official procedure through the regional camps if (1) the situation is those camps is humane; (2) the EU is taking in significant numbers from the camps; and (3) the EU is largely rejecting refugees who come on their own accord – for example, by not accepting refugees who have left a (well-run) refugee camp in the region. This policy will have serious benefits for the refugees, including the ones who do have the voluntary alternative option, by decreasing the financial costs and security risk involved in the semi-legal route (including physical abuse and death). But it also has significant benefits for the European host population. Take care of refugees in their own region is much cheaper than doing it in Europe. Moreover, refugees can be prepared for the future host country well before the actual immigration, for example with courses on the culture and language of that country, which will significantly increase the speeds and success of their integration. At the same time, the host country can be prepare for the refugees before they arrive, as they know in advance how many and which people will come.

But foreign aid should also be used to create better economic conditions in developing countries, which should decrease the volume of both immigrants and refugees. This means, first and foremost, that the priorities of foreign aid spending should be set by the economic and social needs of the receiving countries rather than by the economic and political desires of the donor countries. This is not to say that there shouldn’t be significant oversight. In fact, it would be good if the EU would establish a foreign aid agency that not only oversees the prioritizing of projects and transferring of funds in Brussels, but be actively involved in the implementation and oversight of the projects on the ground. It could coordinate with national governments as well as draw on existing expertise from governments and NGOs in this sector, particularly in Northern Europe.

5. Do not intervene in foreign countries without seriously taking into account the migration effects

Every intervention has potential consequences for migration and foreign policy is no exception. The most obvious example is military invasion, as has been painfully clear in the more recent cases of Afghanistan and Iraq. But smaller military interventions, as the French are involved in in Africa, also create internal and external refugee streams. And non-military intervention also can have serious effects on migration streams. Europe’s obsession with fossil fuels does not only lead to an unacceptable tolerance towards human rights abuses by authoritarian leaders with important natural resources, but also (tacit) support for environmental degradation. Whereas the former leads to relatively small numbers of refugees, the latter can lead to rather large numbers of immigrants.

Similarly, pressuring countries into adopting tough environmental or human rights legislation can have significant negative economic consequences. For example, reducing carbon emission could lead to the forced closing or downsizing of polluting industries. This could create mass unemployment in the whole region, think of regions dependent upon mining, and increase the stream of national as well as international immigrants. Even if foreign aid is used to help create a new industry in that same region, it will not necessarily benefit the same people who lost their job – as they might lack the skills for the new economic activity. Similarly, pushing countries to abolish child labor or sex work without providing alternative sources of income for these particular families and people could create a pool of potential immigrants.

While these five points might sound very ambitious, and perhaps even utopian, the real challenge is not so much the implementation of these policies, but rather to get them on the political and public agenda. To achieve this, we need politicians to lead, rather than hide behind the population’s prejudices (which they have partly created or at least fuelled). We also need journalists to put facts above opinions, because without a sensible immigration debate, there will never be a popular mandate for a sensible immigration policy. This requires both the people and the politicians to adopt a more long-term and realistic perspective on immigration.

Given that immigration is a reality, which cannot be prevented without significant financial and moral costs, it is crucial for Europe to prepare for it. It makes sense that immigrants and refugees will integrate better into countries that are logistically prepared for them and where populations are welcoming them. To achieve this, it is crucial for all to understand that the good integration of large groups of immigrants and refugees is less costly for European countries than the bad integration of small groups of immigrants and refugees.   

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About the author

Cas Mudde is associate professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia (USA). He is the author of Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe (2007) and editor of Youth and the Extreme Right (2014), Political Extremism (2014), and Populism in Europe and Latin America: Corrective or Threat for Democracy? (2012). He is a member of the Scholars Strategy Network and can be followed on Twitter at @casmudde.


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