Helping Europe’s poor or helping migrants: A political choice

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Austerity leaves you naked. Brussels, 18 August. [Joel Schalit/Flickr]

It is wrong to suggest that there is a choice to make between helping Europe’s poor and helping migrants, many of them refugees fleeing from war and conflicts, writes Natalia Alonso.

Natalia Alonso is deputy director of Advocacy and Campaigns at Oxfam International.

Poverty and inequality in Europe have reached shocking levels, according to a new Oxfam report. Between 2009 and 2013, the number of Europeans living without enough money to heat their homes or cope with unforeseen expenses, known as ‘severe material deprivation’, rose by 7.5 million to 50 million people.

The report ‘A Europe for the Many, Not the Few’ confirms how rising inequality is making the fight against poverty harder to win. Today 123 million people in the EU – almost a quarter of the population – are at risk of living in poverty. At the same time the EU is now home to 342 billionaires.

Poverty in the EU is not an issue of scarcity, but a problem of how resources – income and wealth – are shared. The richest 1% today owns almost a third of the region’s wealth, while the poorest 40% of the population share less than 1% of Europe’s total net wealth. This wealthy continent has systemic problems of inequality. Yet such inequality is not inevitable. It is the direct consequence of political choices.

Instead of putting people first, policy-making is increasingly influenced by wealthy elites who bend the rules to their advantage, worsening poverty and economic inequality, while steadily and significantly eroding democratic institutions. But there are ways to reverse this trend and put people first.

Does this somehow mean that Europe, the richest continent on Earth, must to choose between helping its own poor citizens at the expense of helping migrants, many of them refugees fleeing from war and conflict? The answer must always be ‘no’.

Human rights are universal and Europe has a responsibility to protect the vulnerable and respect the rights and human dignity of all people arriving at its borders, as well as those within their own borders. Europe should deal with migration by putting people first, no matter where they come from.

It is a collective responsibility of the EU to guarantee that there is sufficient capacity to receive, register, house and process all arrivals and ensure that their basic needs are met and their rights respected, including the right to claim asylum.

We are talking about 340,000 people arriving in Europe so far in 2015. Does that really sound like so many? In fact these people represent just 0,068% of Europe´s population. That’s about one person arriving for every 1,500 people already living in Europe. 

Migrants will continue to contribute to Europe’s economic growth. Currently they contribute more in taxes and social contributions in the EU than they receive in individual benefits. This is the case for most countries except those with a large share of older migrants – Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal. Migration is good news for Europe’s economy.

What is a negative influence on Europe’s economy is extreme inequality which hinders economic growth and is leading to parallel societies within countries with small elites of very rich individuals, and a large number of impoverished citizens. Such societies tend to be unstable, with weak institutions and poor democratic functioning. Is this the Europe we want? Is this the Europe we have?

To tackle inequality and poverty in Europe, leaders must reduce the influence the rich and powerful have in shaping government policies at the expense of the majority of people. There are deliberate policy interventions and political commitments that Europe can take now to break the cycle of poverty, inequality and political capture that fuels democratic bankruptcy. Increased social spending, improved public service provision, decent work and wages, and progressive tax systems can all help to create a fairer society.

Europe must ensure a responsible response to migrant flows. Yet at the same time leaders must urgently tackle unemployment, poverty and low-income jobs with a particular focus on those most negatively affected – including the young and migrants.

Acting on inequality is no less urgent than managing the migration wave with humanity.  Europe has the resources and the capacity to do both, and the responsibility to do both as enshrined in universal human rights. It is a matter of political will. 

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