Refugees welcome? Changing the perception of migration in the EU

Migration is an expression of the human aspiration for dignity, safety and a better future. It is part of the social fabric, part of our very make-up as a human family.

- Ban Ki-moon (Former Secretary-General of the UN)

The worldwide pandemic brought on by the outbreak of Covid-19 has taught us much about the flaws in our society and exposed our vulnerabilities in the case of a true emergency. As usual, it is the most vulnerable groups among us who have the most to worry about as the world begins to recover. Countless numbers of migrants now find themselves caught in a particularly difficult situation with nowhere to turn to for help. With many economies, including some of the largest in the European Union, slipping into recession, stating that the EU needs to rethink its migration policy would be an understatement. The time has come for the EU to recognise the value immigrants can bring to an economy, and to a society as a whole, when they are granted full citizen’s rights. In this article, I will aim to demonstrate this value, as well as dispelling some common misconceptions regarding migration, and offer recommendations as to how these issues should be addressed.

Throughout history, migration has been key to the advancement of civilization. In times of crisis, such as the aftermath of the World Wars, migration levels reached new heights. These conflicts led to the creation of the groundbreaking Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) of 1948, which states that “everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country” and that “everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”, in its articles 13 and 14, respectively. What the UDHR fails to establish - a failure which was repeated in the drafting of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of 1950, as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966- is the right to enter any nation.

Without this right, people can be left in dangerous, uncertain circumstances and, as I alluded to in a previous article, migrants were, and continue to be, overexposed to the dangers of the pandemic. Add to this the prejudice faced by migrants in their day-to-day lives and the sometimes outrageous practices of border control agents or conditions at detention centres, and you would be forgiven for wondering why so many people risk their lives to enter the EU, both legally and irregularly, each year. The reasoning is quite simple: they want to have a happier, safer life, just like everybody else. Let us not forget that, more often than not, migrants are escaping conflict or persecution, making it unsafe to remain in or return to their home country. Furthermore, many of the conflicts in North Africa and the Middle-East are the product of Europe’s colonial past, placing even more responsibility at the feet of the EU. Incoming migrants want to have the opportunity to achieve their full potential and this opportunity is being denied to them by the lack of common policy and, in some cases, the outright indifference towards men, women and children who come from different corners of the world.

Over the last decade, migration levels have increased dramatically in the EU. The majority of these migrants are coming from the Some Member States have skirted their responsibilities with regard to migration relocation quotas, while other Member States have flatly refused to accept refugees. Over the last number of weeks, we’ve seen Malta unapologetically break international law and maritime conventions by diverting migrant boats towards Italy, and illegally detaining hundreds of people on offshore ferries. While southern European nations have, at times, accepted more than their fair share of migrants, their northern counterparts have been less co-operative. Although these overwhelmed southern countries, namely Greece and Italy, have had their financial aid boosted in an attempt to ease the pressure they are under, a decent proportion of this funding is only temporary.

Leaving immigrants in a state of irregularity, that is to say, without being granted rights, is a dangerous situation which must also be avoided. Whether they are asylum-seekers (who are seeking international protection, having fled their home country), refugees (who began as asylum-seekers and have been recognised as refugees and so, have some level of protection) or economic migrants in search of greener pastures, nobody should be left to fend for themselves when they arrive in a new country. Such situations open migrants up to a whole host of issues, including a lack of access to services, something which should be guaranteed, according to international human rights law, and detention being used as a tool to manage arriving migrants. The mismanagement of migrants is far too common across the EU, despite Member States being fully aware of their obligations to migrants in irregular situations.

Migration misconceptions

So why do EU nations regularly dodge their responsibilities with regard to migrants? To answer this question, we must acknowledge, but by no means accept, many of the long-held stereotypes that surround immigrants. Many people believe that a large influx of migrants will lead to the overloading of health services and other public services in general. Another common misconception is something known as the lump of labour fallacy. This is the incorrect idea that there is a fixed number of jobs in any economy and, when applied to the issue of migration, it would falsely state that any job an immigrant will gain will be taking a job away from a native. Some people even believe this to be the goal for immigrants. This is completely untrue. Immigrants want access to stable work and public services, just like the rest of the population. An increase in regular migrants would not take any jobs away from natives. In fact, depending on economic growth and technological advances, it may even lead to higher demand for services and jobs, which could, in turn, lead to an increase in the number of jobs and the amount of services being provided.

Many observers also claim that immigrants have a negative impact on the economy. Such claims are, however, misleading. The fact of the matter is that calculating this is extremely difficult and researchers must make several assumptions when estimating these kinds of figures. Age, skill, earnings and whether or not they have children are all aspects to a migrant’s life which will impact greatly on the fiscal impact they have. These are all characteristics which are likely to change over time and so it is probable that the effect any one migrant may have on the economy will change throughout their life. In this way, the fiscal footprint of a migrant may vary greatly over their life cycle. Even taking this variation into account, the impact has been shown to be a positive one in many parts of the world. Furthermore, when there is a budget deficit, the average national resident will represent a net fiscal cost. As a result, the fact that migrants are having an absolute positive or negative fiscal impact on a country does not indicate clearly how they compare to those born in that same country.

How then can a nation benefit from immigrants? To us, the answer is quite simple: grant immigrants full citizen’s rights as soon as their application process for asylum begins and the long-lasting benefits -not just economic, but also sociocultural and humanitarian- will be enjoyed by the state, by citizens and by migrants themselves.

Full rights for immigrants

Let us begin with the economic benefits of integrating immigrants into society and granting them full citizen’s rights. As stated above, many of the investigations into the impact migrants have on an economy are flawed. One thing is certain, however, and that is that there is a much higher chance than migrants would integrate faster, pay taxes and social security, and enter the legitimate jobs market quicker, if they were granted rights sooner. In theory, migrants would represent a net economic gain if they were able to work legally and would also play an important role in solving one of the biggest looming issues in many EU Member States: the “pension time bomb”. This is the phenomenon in which there is an unusually high proportion of the population entitled to pensions and is one of, if not the, main reason that Angela Merkel famously accepted one million migrants into Germany in 2015, at the height of the recent migration crisis. Merkel knew what many choose to ignore, that migrants can contribute greatly to labour market flexibility, often targeting lower-paid jobs. OECD data from 2014 shows us that younger migrants "contribute more in taxes and social contributions than they receive in individual benefits". Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that many economic migrants do not stay to “live off the state” when work dries up, as many anti-immigration pundits would suggest. We need only look to Ireland in the years preceding the economic downturn, when the country saw a large influx of construction workers from the EU, particularly from Eastern European countries. Following the crash of 2008, many of these immigrants returned to their home countries, thus lessening the increase in unemployment in Ireland.

On a sociocultural level, the argument for granting immigrants citizen’s rights is one which is rooted in the diverse, globalised world in which we find ourselves living. In this globalised world, logic would suggest that sharing the responsibility for global matters is the fairest way to approach such matters. Migration is no different. Migration gives people from parts of the world that are ravaged by conflict, environmental catastrophe or authoritarian governments a chance at a different, more safe life in which they have a genuine opportunity to achieve their potential. The desire to have this new life means that immigrants bring with them a determination which can prove infectious for a host nation. Furthermore, a society which welcomes newcomers, will see its own communities strengthened by becoming more diverse and flexible. Needless to say, as individual communities become stronger through integration and diversity, so do cities, EU Member States and, in turn, the EU as a whole.

Finally, we have the humanitarian rationale which, I believe, should be enough to convince everyone that immigrants should be welcomed and integrated into society as quickly as possible. The European Union champions human rights as one of its core values, yet the lack of a common migration protocol has many Member States dragging their feet. A common migration policy, which is to be expected following the announced overhaul to the EU’s migration policy last week, would not only give hope to those who see the EU as an ideal place to live their lives, but it would also strengthen the relationships between countries within the EU. Member States need to be able to rely on one another if the Union is to function as well as it can and migration, which has been a divisive topic over the last decade, should be transformed into a unifying subject.

Next steps

As mentioned in the last section, the EU has recently announced a new common policy on migration and asylum. This is a long-overdue but very important step for the bloc, as it aims to ensure Member States do not skirt their responsibilities when it comes to accepting and managing immigrants in a safe and humane way. Some key changes which must take place, and have been alluded to in the new policy are as follows:

1. Sharing of responsibility more fairly between Member States:

No longer should countries such as Greece, Italy and, to a lesser extent, Spain, be disproportionately challenged by a high number of incoming asylum-seekers and other migrants, due to the fact that they are the first stop for many people entering Europe. Other Member States must play their part and take their fair share of migrants, as well as ensuring that the new procedures are followed in an identical manner in all EU countries.

2. Overhaul of practices at external borders:

The new pact aims to introduce a much more thorough screening process at external borders. This is an extremely welcome and necessary measure, as we have witnessed just how much of a mess the screening process can be. In times of crisis in particular, large numbers of asylum-seekers often cross in big groups which makes them very difficult to properly screen. These migrants are often referred to as “prima-facie refugees”. Furthermore, we have shamefully become accustomed to witnessing some shocking behaviour directed towards immigrants, by border control agents. Camps such as those on the Greek islands, which have been in the spotlight for months due to their inhumane conditions and overcrowding, must be replaced with a safer, more dignified setting for what should now be a much shorter period of temporary detention. In an ideal world, of course, the EU will find common ground and implement alternatives to detention.

3. Dealing with children and family reunification:

Child migrants must be kept free from detention and every effort to ensure swift reunification of families must be a top priority for the EU. A staggering number of unaccompanied minors enter the EU each year and they are, of course, amongst the most vulnerable members of society and, thus, must be given special attention.

4. Implementation and proper monitoring of integration programmes:

Finally, the EU must do a lot more when it comes to integration of immigrants within their new communities. It is not enough to merely admit immigrants and hope for the best. Programmes must be developed and should include a wide variety of community members, with the aim of helping immigrants to gain the knowledge and skills necessary to enjoy their life and contribute to their new community. Such programmes not only enrich the lives of immigrants, but help to create a positive relationship between these immigrants and their new neighbours.

These are but a handful of the measures which we hope to see introduced, should the new pact on migration and asylum manage to become binding European law. Whether or not this pact will be approved by national governments, however, remains to be seen. One thing we know for sure, though, is that migration is a topic which will be in the spotlight for weeks, months and years to come. We, as a Union, must look to accept, integrate and appreciate these people who come from far and wide to share in the communities that have been created for, and by, us over the last number of decades. It is essential that these immigrants be granted rights so that the EU, its Member States, those Member States’ citizens and the immigrants themselves can all reap the benefits of a diverse, integrated and well-rounded society.