Instead of a responding to today’s migration challenges from a position of strength, Europe has reacted in fear. This has to change, warns Eugenio Ambrosi.
Eugenio Ambrosi is director of the International Organisation for Migration’s Regional Office for the EU.
When the going gets tough, Europe panics. Walls and fences, restrictive legislation, and even military assets have become the default greeting for desperate migrants and refugees, women and children, looking to Europe for safety and hope.
Perversely, several European states portray themselves as desperate and under threat from migrants and refugees. We see this through the apocalyptic language and frantic measures to deter the very people they need to welcome, protect, give a chance to integrate and contribute.
Even the term “crisis” has been unfairly pinned on a situation where migrants and refugees are by their very numbers considered a threat, a problem, or a burden. This is misleading and dangerous not only to the life and limb of migrants facing hostility, racism and the sea, but also to the very essence and survival of the EU itself.
What is underestimated in these gestures are not only the costs to Europe’s image and relations, but also to its social and economic future.
Completely open borders are not sensible but it is suicidal to keep everyone out. The costs of barriers are enormous. The massive losses to smugglers are avoidable.
The EU desperately needs to re-prioritise the tougher and longer-term investment in migrant and refugee integration, not least because the success or failure of the European project hinges in large part on how we welcome and help the newcomers integrate into our societies. Effective integration stands out as the most efficient tool to ensure the safety and security of immigrants and European citizens alike.
Those leaders who have found the political courage to turn the debate around recognise that historically, well-managed migration and migrants themselves are not a threat, but have positive impacts on society when welcomed and given a fair chance to contribute.
EU states, plus Iceland, Switzerland, and Norway, spent €11.3 billion on forcibly returning people in the past 15 years, according to research done by the Migrants Files consortium of European journalists.
EU states also spent €1.6 billion on border control, while migrants have paid smugglers over €16 billion to reach Europe during this period. The criminal networks that smuggle people into and within the EU made from €3 to €6 billion in 2015 alone, according to Europol estimates.
That is a lot of misplaced economic and human capital. Spending even half of this on tested integration measures and social cohesion at the national and local levels would make a huge difference for the better. Gains for all are possible.
The EU and the Bruegel Institute recently reported that immigration could provide a near-term stimulus of 0.2% of eurozone GDP. Research from the European Commission backs this estimate. Immigrants from outside the European Union pay enough social contributions to fund the pensions of 600,000 retired Italians, research from the Italian government revealed in 2015.
A welcoming attitude and humane assistance to all arriving migrants regardless of their legal status is the best, and only way, to start a mutually beneficial process.
While rapid increases in migrant numbers can initially strain communities, cities and towns that are prepared to make a smart investment and work with migrants will fare better. According to the OECD, integration challenges do not increase with the share of immigrants in the population. In fact, countries that are home to more immigrants tend have more success with integration.
We must also avoid the often repeated mistake of keeping large groups of people in limbo, of marginalising and excluding them because this breeds disappointment and resentment that can be easily exploited by unscrupulous, criminal or even radical networks.
Instead, migrants will need help finding work, learning a new language, and continuing with their education if they are to be a positive force in their new communities.
We know from our own work with migrants in countries of origin and destination that the earlier migrants and refugees get the right support, the more their integration prospects improve. There is no time to lose.
This would be a much needed investment and a historical victory over the same malign forces driving so many people from their homes towards the safety and promise of Europe.