Look Who's Coming to Dinner
The chaotic inrush of refugees, one million to Germany alone in 2015, is slowly but surely changing Europe. Not only has it created a new fault line separating the EU into East and West, in addition to the one dividing it into North and South that yawned during the euro crisis. It is also calling into question the very foundations of the EU's asylum policy by casting doubt, among some political leaders, on whether the people flowing in are refugees at all.
So what is a refugee, exactly? Whom is it our moral and legal duty to shelter?
Let's see. If someone has reason to fear for her life or freedom on account of her religion, political views, sexual orientation or because of violent confrontation in her home country or region, she ranks as "persecuted". She will, understandably, do anything to bring herself and her family to safety by fleeing the dangerous place.
Once she reaches the first location where the threats to her life and freedom do not prevail, she technically ceases to be "persecuted" and becomes a "refugee". This is where things start to get tricky.
For one thing, the above would mean that any country bordering a conflict zone becomes the natural harbour for all the persecuted running for their lives—provided, of course, that the country in question is a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and has a big heart. Pity then those countries in troubled neighbourhoods.
This brings up some complications. Tiny Lebanon, for instance, with around five million inhabitants, has already welcomed well over a million Syrian refugees. As a percentage of its population, it has the most refugees in the world. It is as if Germany had accommodated some 16 million refugees, or the EU around 100 million. Jordan and Turkey are also groaning under the burden of lodging inordinately large numbers of refugees.
Say, then, that our refugee decides to move on, after realising that she will vegetate in a refugee camp for an indeterminate number of years with no prospects of any kind for her and her children. She scrapes enough cash to pay a people-smuggler to bring her and her family to a place promising better economic prospects. At that moment, she becomes an economic migrant.
She and her family arrive — if they survive the trek — at the outer border of the EU, the land of milk and honey. Haggard, scared and helpless, she asks for her and hers to be let in. The border guards, seeing people in clear need of help, open the gate and let them in, for humanitarian reasons. Or not.
This is where the grey zone lies. Technically, these people are not persecuted but migrants looking for a brighter future. But also desperate, destitute and dispossessed. Anyone with half a heart would give them shelter. On the point of whether they are legally obliged to, however, is where some political leaders are currently at loggerheads.
And here comes the other angle. These would-be immigrants are keen to work. And Europe, with its ageing societies, needs new workers. Germany alone theoretically needs more than 30 million young immigrants until 2035 to keep the old-age dependency ratio constant at the current pensionable age, and maintain both the pension and contribution rates in its pay-as-you-go system unchanged. So, could the newcomers be the solution?
Two problems arise. One is skills. The European economies, more than people, need certain skills that are presently in short supply, and the newcomers, with relatively few exceptions, do not possess them. Not even the language. According to all estimates, it will take many years to make them fit for the labour market, if ever. And while the potential of their children is large, provided they can be successfully integrated in the educational system, it will take even longer.
In fact, the difficulties are huge. The PISA studies show that 65 percent of Syrians at the age of 15 fall below the Pisa-1 level that the OECD defines as basic competence. Thus, even if they learn German, they will be unable to begin vocational training without further schooling. The educational skills of the Syrians assembled in Turkish camps is somewhat better; still, nearly half of them also fall below the basic skill level. This explains why 70 percent of young Syrians, Afghanis and Iraqis who enrolled in an apprenticeship in Germany two years ago have already dropped out.
On top of that, the recipient countries themselves put up further barriers by prohibiting, in many cases, applicants from working until their asylum applications have been approved, and that can take very long, or through legal restrictions even afterwards, such as the requirement that the prospective employer demonstrates that no European can be found to fill the position in question. Germany, for one, has now decided to issue work permits to all asylum applicants after only three months of residence.
There have been different calculations about the benefit that refugees bring to the recipient countries. While a Keynesian model using a multiplier analysis until 2035 (!) comes to the conclusion that there are positive net benefits for the incumbent population, generational accounting models come up with frighteningly large loss estimates for the state, reaching between 79,000 and 450,000 euros per person in present value terms. This burden might well prove unsustainable if the number of immigrants continues unabated.
Meanwhile, the hackles being raised among the native population result from more imminent problems. Inevitably, the locals are starting to get nervous about young men lounging about, with lots of time in their hands and nothing to do with it. A substantial fraction of German school gyms and public spaces are already filled with refugees. Others fear that the newcomers will be living off welfare or competing for their own jobs. Right-wing parties are already merrily stoking the fears in order to reap electoral benefits. Witness the rise of the National Front in France or the resurgence of Alternative for Germany, well, in Germany.
So, for those insinuating that Germany has opened its doors simply to gain cheap labourers, as Marie Le Pen has claimed, think twice.
Thus, all of this seems to suggest that opening the arms to the refugees is a moral rather than an economic decision. This puts Angela Merkel's "We will manage" proclamation in perspective. She clearly has more than half a heart—and claimed with it the moral high ground. But it also highlights the arguments made by her critics, that we really didn't have to proclaim our open disposition quite so loudly, tempting even more people to dare the perilous passage, and would be better off by copying Canada's selective immigration approach.
History has partly determined Germany's, and Angela Merkel's, stance. Her growing up in Communist East Germany makes her keenly aware of how it is to yearn for freedom from behind a barbed-wire fence, while Germany's past misdeeds, itself having more than once been the originator of the urge to flee and of waves of refugees, make it highly sensitive to human misery.
In the end, persecuted? Refugee? Asylum-seeker? Economic migrant? Whatever: human.