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Roth writes: "European leaders may differ about how to respond to the asylum-seekers and migrants surging their way, but they seem to agree they face a crisis of enormous proportions."

Syrian refugees' camp. (photo: Nikolay Doychinov/AFP/Getty)
Syrian refugees' camp. (photo: Nikolay Doychinov/AFP/Getty)

The Refugee Crisis That Isn't

By Kenneth Roth, Reader Supported News

04 September 15


uropean leaders may differ about how to respond to the asylum-seekers and migrants surging their way, but they seem to agree they face a crisis of enormous proportions. Germany's Angela Merkel has called it "the biggest challenge I have seen in European affairs in my time as chancellor." Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni has warned that the migrant crisis could pose a major threat to the "soul" of Europe. But before we get carried away by such apocalyptic rhetoric, we should recognize that if there is a crisis, it is one of politics, not capacity.

There is no shortage of drama in thousands of desperate people risking life and limb to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean in rickety boats or enduring the hazards of land journeys through the Balkans. The available numbers suggest that most of these people are refugees from deadly conflict in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. Eritreans -- another large group -- fled a brutally repressive government. The largest group -- the Syrians -- fled the dreadful combination of their government's indiscriminate attacks, including by barrel bombs and suffocating sieges, and atrocities by ISIS and other extremist groups. Only a minority of migrants arriving in Europe, these numbers suggest, were motivated solely by economic betterment.

This "wave of people" is more like a trickle when considered against the pool that must absorb it. The European Union's population is roughly 500 million. The latest estimate of the numbers of people using irregular means to enter Europe this year via the Mediterranean or the Balkans is approximately 340,000. In other words, the influx this year is only 0.068 percent of the EU's population. Considering the EU's wealth and advanced economy, it is hard to argue that Europe lacks the means to absorb these newcomers.

To put this in perspective, the U.S., with a population of 320 million, has some 11 million undocumented immigrants. They make up about 3.5 percent of the U.S. population. The EU, by contrast, had between 1.9 and 3.8 million undocumented immigrants in 2008 (the latest available figures), or less than one percent of its population, according to a study sponsored by the European Commission. Put another way, nearly 13 percent of the U.S. population (some 41 million residents) are foreign-born -- twice the proportion of non-EU foreign-born people living in Europe.

The U.S. government is hardly exemplary in its treatment of asylum-seekers, and the country has had its share of Donald Trumps who float wild ideas about expelling America's 11 million undocumented immigrants, but polls show nearly three quarters of Americans think that undocumented immigrants who reside in the U.S. should be given a way to stay legally. Indeed, the U.S. has arguably built its economy around these migrants doing work that most Americans won't.

So why the European panic? As in the U.S., an influx of foreigners provides plenty of material for demagogues. Some contend the new arrivals will steal jobs or lower wages. With rapidly diminishing unemployment in the U.S., that doesn't seem to have been true, but European unemployment remains stubbornly high. Yet many European countries also face a worsening demographic problem, with too few young workers increasingly asked to support too many pensioners. An influx of people with the proven perseverance and wit to escape war and repression back home and navigate the deadly hazards along the route to Europe would seem to provide an injection of energy and drive that Europe arguably needs.

There are concerns about terrorism. Many of the refugees are fleeing the likes of ISIS in Syria or al-Shabab in Somalia, but no one can preclude the possibility that terrorists have secreted themselves in the flow of humanity. Yet terrorist groups have already shown themselves quite capable of sending agents to Europe -- or recruiting them there -- through more conventional means. Just as no refugee would brave crossing the Mediterranean or negotiating the land route through the Balkans if easier options were available, so these routes would hardly seem to be major avenues for well-financed terrorist groups. There is no evidence that any has used it.

The biggest concern among the hawkers of crisis seems to be fears about culture. The U.S. has many more undocumented immigrants than the EU and has always been a nation of immigrants. America's vitality is in large part due to the energy and ideas that waves of immigrants have brought to its shores. While anti-immigrant policies occasionally flare up in the U.S. -- including Chinese exclusion in the 1880s, Japanese-American internment in the 1940s, Haitian interdiction in the 1990s and detention of mothers and small children fleeing harm in Central America today -- many Americans recognize that their life is enriched by diversity.

But most European countries do not think of themselves as immigrant nations. Many Europeans fear that an influx of foreigners will undermine their comfortable cultures. Research suggests this concern is a major factor in support for populist extremist parties in many EU countries. That fear is accentuated in largely Christian Europe by the Muslim religion of most of the new arrivals. Some governments -- Poland, Bulgaria, Slovakia -- have expressed a strong preference for only Christian refugees.

This disquiet has been building for decades as Europe's population has slowly changed. Predictably, the UKIP party in Britain and politicians such as Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Matteo Salvini of Italy, Milos Zeman in the Czech Republic are now using the refugee surge to accentuate these fears.

This is a political challenge, requiring political leadership in response -- not a question of capacity to absorb the recent immigrants. Some politicians have risen to the occasion. Merkel, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, among others, have spoken out against the demagogues and affirmed the European values that they jeopardize. Yet there is more to be said, and more leaders who need to say it.

Europeans leaders should publicly recall how others responded generously during World War II, when Europeans were the ones facing persecution and even becoming refugees. After the war, European nations embraced international law requiring them to welcome any asylum-seekers who could demonstrate they fled persecution. True to that principle, Germany and Sweden have already said they would accept all Syrian refugees who arrive within their borders and not send them back to the first EU country they entered under the bloc's problematic "Dublin" asylum rules. Other European nations should follow suit, and the EU should recognize a larger list of refugee-producing countries and revise the Dublin rules, which can trap asylum-seekers in EU countries that lack capacity to protect them and compel asylum-seekers to pay smugglers to escape those countries.

As for those not yet in Europe, it is unconscionable to use the risk of drowning at sea or mistreatment by a smuggler as a mechanism to deter further asylum-seekers. Not providing safe and legal routes empowers illegal smugglers who are making money as children drown fleeing conflict. Asylum-seekers who arrive in Greece -- an EU member -- should be given organized transportation to northern parts of the EU that are more capable of processing their claims under humane conditions rather than be forced to endure the risks of smuggling networks just to cross the Balkans.

More needs to be done to address the causes of refugee flows at the source. European and other leaders need to exert more pressure to stop the Syrian military's barrel bombing of civilians. Because barrel bombs are used to target civilians throughout opposition-held territory, they render ineffective the usual survival strategy of moving away from the front lines and thus encourage more Syrians to flee the country altogether. These leaders need to do more for Syria's neighbors, such as Lebanon, whose population is now a whopping 20 percent Syrian refugees -- vastly greater than in any European country.

Political leaders should not let the demagogues change the subject by fear mongering about asylum-seekers and migrants. Those moving toward Europe, though numerous, are manageable. The real question confronting Europe's political leadership is what Europe stands for. What are the values that will guide Europe in a world whose people are not standing still? The more European leaders who answer this question by reaffirming European values -- such as those enshrined in the treaty protecting refugees, the safer European culture will be, even in this period of migration and turmoil. your social media marketing partner


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+10 # CarolinMexico 2015-09-05 05:00
I currently am spending time in Sweden which has seen a substantial shift to the anti-immigrant Swedish Democrats. It is laudable that the majority coalition of moderates and leftists are not asking the racist questions, but rather what Sweden needs to supply to immigrants to insure that they can be successful in Sweden. The answers are challenging when Sweden, a country of 9 million, is welcoming 100,000 immigrants this year.
Sweden is known for its gender equality commitment to human rights and lack of homophobia. And, yet, no one here has been wiiling to confront the outrageous misogeny, the extreme sexism and acceptance of gender-based and homophobic violence among immigrants. Hopefully, Swedes --who often describe themselves as the conscience of the world -- will confront these issues head on and not pretend that immigrants who eschew basic human rights for women should not have to make some concessions to gain admittance. After all, the former state religion (Lutherens) have had to do so.
+11 # babalu 2015-09-05 07:39
The bankers have picked clean Greece so it no longer has a safety net for its own citizens, let alone funds to cope with the influx. Likewise in other countries, the bankers hold the strings and are run by the greediest of the psychopaths who constantly shout, not "what can I do to help my neighbor in need" but the plaintive cry of "where's the money going to come from" - as if it should NOT come from those who have been stealing and gaming the systems in financial services. We would have plenty of money if the financial "services" industry had not increased its profits from 8% of all US profits to 40%. They are the vampires bleeding the rest of us!
+5 # elizabethblock 2015-09-05 08:18
The US is a nation of immigrants. So is Canada. European countries are accustomed to thinking of themselves as nation-states, i.e. ethnically homogeneous, and many of them are, more or less. So it's harder for them - but not impossible.
Maybe they should reflect on the emigrants who left their countries in the past, in some cases, e.g. Norway, massive numbers of them.
+3 # MidwesTom 2015-09-05 09:40
This article makes it sound like all of Europe is accepting this tide of immigrants on an equal per capita basis. This simply is not true. Most European countries offer little welfare assistance to immigrants, but Germany and to a lesser degree France, offer relatively generous support, and hence are the preferred destination of the immigrants. Germany is probably looking at accepting an increase in population of more than one percent, while Poland is accepting very few.

What surprises me is why aren't these immigrants going to wealthy Saudi Arabia, or stopping in Turkey, or going to the Islamic south of Russia? It looks to me like benefits are the big magnet.
+5 # Dave Parsons 2015-09-05 10:59
This is an externalized cost of war. It should be worked into the cost of war through surcharges on arms sales and through set-asides n defense spending and when necessary, through the seizing of assets from countries who promote war. If everyone who advocates regime change and military intervention were required to accept a few immigrants as neighbors and pay for their resettlement, it would be just and fair.
+4 # Radscal 2015-09-05 13:52
And since the wars etc. that are causing millions of survivors to flee their homes are principally, US fomented/funded /executed, it is the US who should be bearing most of the cost, and opening its doors to any and all of the refugees.

Well, actually it is the US-enforced decisions of international finance and corporate psychopaths that are causing this terror and they should pay for it all, both in money and with criminal prosecutions.
+1 # Glen 2015-09-05 16:37
If thousands of migrants come to the U.S. it won't be the government who takes care of them - it will be citizens. The U.S. government will turn a blind eye, just as they have when thousands have been killed with their attacks on these countries, or their support of radical groups or dictatoes.
0 # vermin_rat 2015-09-06 20:25
The basic problem can be simply stated that
the more economic refugees accepted by a nation
will result in more illegal immigrants demanding jobs. This happened in 1986 in the US when amnesty was given to illegal workers. Millions more from Mexico and lands south have passed the boarder without documentation. They risk only deportation once they get here. They make a wise gamble that money can be made and perhaps another amnesty. Why would these folks not make this journey when the potential advantages have been provided to kin from previous waves? I do not blame these people but condemn the politicians and employers who exploit this crime and drive down wages and economic opportunities of Americans.

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