EU migrant crisis, Pt. III: How much will it cost?

Migrants arrive in Sicily. || Yannis Behrakis, Reuters.

Migrants arrive in Sicily. || Yannis Behrakis, Reuters.

This article is the third installment of a four-part series addressing the EU migrant crisis. Parts I and II can be found accordingly.

Regardless of your position on the political spectrum, there is no escaping the fact that migration comes with a cost. In terms of economy, culture, and security, countries will have to bear an additional burden as soon as they agree to receive migrants.

The point of dispute, however, is the nature and extent of this cost. And where critics have been vocal, defendants of European migration policy have remained consistently quiet on the problems that migration has brought to European shores. A good example is the 2015 New Year’s Eve attacks in Germany, wherein 881 cases of sexual assault were perpetrated by men “uniformly described by the victims as North Africans,” of whom, it was later stated by prosecutors, “an overwhelming majority” were recent asylum seekers (Die Welt, author’s translation). Initially, however, police were silent about the events, even while social media raged. And when the attacks were finally acknowledged four days later, migrants were denied to have been associated with the crime.

This silence, or even denial, of the costs and problems created by migration does not help the pro-asylum cause. As stated by BBC correspondent George Hewitt in the aftermath of the New Year’s Eve attacks, “what has [...] been lost is trust - the essential glue in any society. There is now a widely held suspicion that the political elite is not being candid with the German public.” Silence on these matters can only create rifts between government and people, damaging trust in politicians and gradually turning public sentiment against migration.

The second article in this series concluded that granting asylum is a legal obligation for the international community, and one that must be shared across countries. But acceptance and integration of refugees cannot be done successfully if we do not mitigate the risks and costs of doing so— and this cannot be done without first acknowledging them. Our series, then, will conclude by recognizing and quantifying these costs, with the hope of fulfilling three aims: to validate the concerns of migration critics, to give a reasonable appraisal of the cost in order that “fake news” will not prevail (on either side of the debate), and to make the necessary first step toward mitigating these costs.

What are the economic implications of the crisis?

Increased public spending

Since 2015, the EU has spent €22 billion on migration and external security. More than half of this spending is outside the EU, on both humanitarian and preventative measures. “Preventative” includes a variety of projects, including alternative methods of asylum application, as well as funds contributing to the general development of Africa (the goal being, presumably, to remove migration incentives). These, however, are just initial costs. Once refugees are granted asylum, the process of integration begins. Generally, this costs 0–1% of a country’s annual GDP, depending on the number of migrants accepted.

A rosy picture is often painted of the economic situation; after a short period of initial integration spending, supporters say, refugees become net positive contributors like other immigrants. However, this vision is dangerously misleading. It’s true that the typical immigrant has an overwhelming, and almost immediate, positive impact on an economy— but refugees are not typical immigrants. Firstly, they are not selected by education, adaptability, or wealth factors, unlike the majority of regular immigrants. They are selected purely on a humanitarian basis, which means that, merely by being a random population subset, rather than hand-picked “desirables”, refugees have lower adaptability indicators. Secondly, there are a host of personal factors that can affect their integration. Many retain hopes of returning home someday, and are less willing to put down permanent roots in their new country. Most have suffered incredibly brutal personal trauma. And thirdly, they arrive on a scene of near-chaos in Europe, as asylum-granting and integration systems in the EU have been overwhelmed by the recent flood.

All these factors build to a conclusion that refugees have a much tougher time adapting to their new environment and becoming net positive contributors. This is not to say, however, that they do not eventually succeed in getting there— to the contrary, almost all will contribute more through taxes than they received in aid. But, as demonstrated in the adjoining graph, it takes much longer for them to get to that point.

It’s important to acknowledge this crucial difference between regular immigrants and refugees. A great deal more patience will be required by the public; a longer period of spending will ensue, and, if we base projections off previous integration statistics in Australia, perhaps twenty years will pass before the books finally balance. Being of aware of this in advance will help to stave off public bitterness in years to come.

Labour market effects

Another issue when accepting large waves of people into an economy is their impact on the labour market. This is a major concern, especially in Europe, where unemployment remains a major problem in many countries and the continental rate is 8.7%. However, several recent studies have shown that, contrary to popular belief, historical waves of refugees have had little to no impact on native labourers’ wages— both for low-skilled and high-skilled groups (examples are Clemens and Hunt, 2017, or US Department of State, 2017). Even with respect to this particular refugee crisis, no labour impacts have been discovered on the Jordanian economy, which has the second-highest amount of Syrian refugees in the world, proportionate to population (Fakih and Ibrahim, 2016).

What are the cultural implications of the crisis?

“We do not want to see among us significant minorities that possess different cultural characteristics and background than us,” said Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian Prime Minister. “We would like to preserve Hungary as Hungary.”

Although Orbán is often too far-right to have much political support outside his country, the sentiment he expressed in this statement is quietly shared by many across Europe. Contrary to popular liberal belief, it is rarely motivated by hatred of “the other”; these people are usually quite happy to holiday in all sorts of foreign locations around the world. Instead, it stems from a genuine love of one’s own culture and history, and the fear that these will gradually vanish under an incoming tide of different religions, foods, philosophical ideas, manners of dress, and languages.

Speaking from anecdotal evidence, I once met a Danish woman who had immense compassion for the refugee plight. She spoke very warmly of Denmark’s efforts to integrate and assist families affected by the Syrian war. But at one point, she related the story of the pool where she regularly swims, and where each week, the pool closes to the general public for several hours so that women, predominantly Muslim, can swim without being seen by men. This bothered her. “I am happy that they come to my country, I’m happy that they are safe. But they cannot make up their own rules, they cannot continue to live as if they are in Syria! This is a problem, when they do not conform.” The story may seem silly to readers from culturally-adapted countries, where special concessions are made frequently for different religious or ethnic groups. Yet these female-only swim sessions were halted last year, in order that “people learn it is completely natural to swim together.” Clearly, my acquaintance was not alone in her feelings.

Cultural coexistence is one of the biggest challenges we face in the modern age. With unprecedented ease of travel, relatively open borders, and an enormous increase in global trade, humans will have to learn to live together. We’ve seen many experiments in how to make it work. Some choose a route of assimilation; if you come to our country, you must become one of us. Others fall into ghettoization; each culture lives separately in the same city, using their own languages and providing their own restaurants and schools. “Fusion” occurs when a country adopts parts of its immigrants’ cultures, mixes them all up, and produces a mélange. And there is multiculturalism, a harmonious, integrated co-existence, or as Canadians frequently like to say, a “mosaic.”

Each of these methods has its downsides. Assimilation is hard to implement, as newcomers are often (quite rightfully) attached to their freedom of expression. Ghettoization usually results in inter-ethnic tension or, as we’ve seen in Yugoslavia, outright warfare. Fusion, by definition, requires a partial destruction of both cultures. And multiculturalism, although sightings are reported everywhere, is a near-mythic creature with poor navigational abilities, beset on all sides by the rising waters of identity politics.

So what is to be done?

Despite all the challenges Europe will face when trying to integrate different cultures, a successful effort is imperative.

Globalisation, contrary to the beliefs of a particularly prominent American politician, is a force that cannot be reversed; the world is becoming more and more integrated, and will continue to become as such. Future generations will not survive in the face of world trade, integrated economies, and advances in technology if they are hidden away in some corner of Europe. The better they are at understanding other cultures and pioneering harmonious inter-ethnic, inter-religious relations, the more they will succeed as emerging markets take the lead in the world economy, and as new thinkers and philosophers arise elsewhere in the world.

Besides this economic factor, there are other reasons to tear down the fences. Monoculturalism is dying; even if you physically keep other cultures off your streets, you cannot keep them off your television, your music, your Youtube channels. This is because, despite the statements of Viktor Orbán, the outside world is interesting. Hungarians cannot be expected to sit in cultural isolation forever; they will consume foreign shows and books and ideas. They will travel and learn new things. And the only way to prevent all this foreignness from destroying domestic culture is to open the doors, invite people in, and allow them to see your own shows and books and ideas.

The best way to ride the wave of globalisation and adapt to the future is not to sit behind fences and talk about preservation of culture. Denying or hiding from the changing reality of mankind isn’t going to protect any nation in the long run. Instead, one must step onto the world stage, embrace change, and make certain not to be forgotten in a corner; this, and only this, is the surest way to establish a nation’s culture as a fundamental part of world heritage.

One of the most poignant contributions to this discussion surfaces in Patrick Kingsley’s book The New Odyssey, during his encounter with a Serbian pastor, Tibor Varga, who spends his days assisting refugees trapped at the border.

Europe, he says, is frightened that an influx of foreigners will erode European values. But what values will there be to uphold if we abandon our duty to protect those less fortunate than ourselves? What incentive do we give to refugees to maintain the fabric of our society if that fabric is so ragged in the first place?

Europe’s historical legacy of humanity’s greatest ideals— the rights of man, abolition of slavery, universal suffrage, liberté, egalité, fraternité, to name but a few—shouldn’t be let down now.

The final article of this series will cover security concerns involved in the EU migrant crisis. It will be published 6 April.