Modern Europe is facing its largest influx of migrants since World War II. Also like World War II, today’s migration crisis doesn’t only affect the future of Europe. We are suffering from a global migration crisis, where the causes and effects have many different origins in many different parts of the world. Calling this a “European” migration crisis not only feeds the fires of xenophobia, but also interferes with the types of collective action and international cooperation required to help those who are displaced, as well as preventing more people from becoming displaced in the future.
Whether you think your nation should welcome refugees or repel them is almost irrelevant. What is relevant is panning back and seeing what needs to be done on a global level instead of focusing on a particular country or continent. Not doing this risks worsening the current crisis, and even increasing the likelihood of more devastating crises in the future. What also becomes clear is that whatever a country’s official stance on migrants might be, its choices are made out of national interests rather than global concerns. This is the main thing that needs to change, but it’s also the hardest of transitions to make.
The Flow of People
We often think of mass migration as something horrifically disruptive to normalcy, both at home and abroad. But when we consider the speed and ease in which information, ideas, products, money and, perhaps most importantly, jobs can cross international borders, human movement is comparatively slow. The rich world, like it or not, benefits massively from the cheap labor provided by those living in and migrating from developing countries. Migrants more often than not also take on unskilled and undesirable but necessary labor, as well as skilled labor for lower wages than their first world counterparts.
People from the developing world obviously benefit too. If a person from a remote part of Africa or an economically sanctioned Russia can find better a better job in the West than at home, they may choose to move. In turn, it’s very rational to assume that industrialized countries where continued economic growth increasingly depends on accepting capital and consumer goods from abroad must also accept a certain amount of people from abroad. Due to this, no advanced nation will ever be able to successfully circumvent migration without economic decline. Wherever money flows, people to some extent must eventually follow.
But of course, migration is not always an economic decision. What’s clear from the data metrics that we have is that political instability in places like Syria, Iraq, Eastern Ukraine, and to some extent Russia, are contributing a great deal to the much higher migration rates seen today, as depicted here:
The Animation team at Kurzgesagt also has some relevant data and arguments.
What is often the most morally confusing part of today’s migrant crisis for many is how to differentiate between asylum-seeking refugees fleeing outright danger and economic migrants in search of higher livings standards. Most today are simultaneously doing both. Still, the question looms, how many migrants ought a country accept?
Germany: Atlas of the West
In a Western world where the likes of Cameron, Trump, Wilders, Orban, and countless other figureheads have politically benefitted from stoking the fires of isolationism and ethnocentrism, few developed countries have taken the initiative to actively accept refugees in the wake of today’s migration crisis. Germany so far is the shining exception. Agreeing to accept 800,000 asylum seekers in 2015 alone, the real number is set to be closer to a million by the end of the year. To get an idea of how massive such an undertaking is in a country of 81 million people, one must consider that the number of Germans to be born in 2015 is just over 700,000. Germany will have more migrants in their country this year than actual births, raising the population by roughly 1.5% in a matter of months. That’s the equivalent of the United States accepting 4.5 million Syrian refugees, a number so large that it would resolve the worst of today’s current crisis.
That being said, German acceptance of migrants isn’t necessarily at all connected to altruism. Even in the face of austerity, Chancellor Angela Merkel proves to be astonishingly pro EU, and sees internationalism as the bedrock of Germany’s future. That has included breaking down the notion of Germany as an ethnic identity, partly as a means of distancing the country from its Nazi past. It’s not unrealistic to assume Merkel to be an ideologue about this. Given the fact that Germany does indeed have a labor shortage due to low birth rates and an array of sophisticated companies that require more skilled labor than Germany currently has within its borders, one could see how accepting migrants and teaching them German is something of a long-term power play. If you can’t make enough Germans, turn others into Germans.
Mounted police guide refugees to be processed in Germany
If this most recent wave of migrants are able to successfully integrate themselves and their children into German society at large, it could well become a critical part of ensuring that a future Germany has continued economic growth and fat pension coffers for decades to come. Getting there will require changing the current day perception of what makes someone German. This, however difficult, is not impossible. Although Germanic culture and language are thousands of years old, there’s no consistent genetic connection among the many central European peoples from the Baltic Sea to Bavaria who claim to be “German.” Germany as a nation-state is fairly new, having its origins in the 1800s. From the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to the Prussians, to Germany’s somewhat quasi-hegemonic economic policies in Europe today, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that Germans have been in the business of turning others into Germans for a very long time now. More optimistically, this has also demonstrated that the idea of what it means to be German is flexible enough to change, and often for the better.
That’s all well and good for Germany, but is this really the solution to our modern migrant crisis? Let Germany handle it? Germany has a habit of going it alone on a variety of divisive global issues in recent years, from expanding renewable energy to increasing its international aid. But even economically mighty Germany doesn’t have enough resources to fix the world on its own (though its leaders enjoy appearing to set the bar for others). The truth of the matter is that the countries choosing to accept asylum seekers are not necessarily less racist than those that do not, and vice versa. Reports in the German press make it clear that the headlines in Dresden are quite different from those in Berlin. One cannot applaud the welcome parades for refugees without also acknowledging the right-wing demonstrations occurring at the same time elsewhere. Issues of race, religious conflict, and even overcrowding in some places are already becoming problematic, and will take years to resolve.
Right wing German protesters depict Merkel in a hijab
Whatever the motive, Germany may well aspire to be a modern Atlas, carrying the weight of the world upon its shoulders. But there are limits to what any single country can do, even one as determined as Germany. As winter comes, a shortage of housing for migrants has already become a massive problem. So too is deciding how much of the government’s budget will be invested into subsidizing refugees while they await work visas and job training. With a perpetual Greek disaster on their hands, as well as an aging population with a growing number of pensioners, even a 100% open-minded and refugee-loving Germany still has to factor in other pressing concerns that also will eat up its resources. Integration takes time and effort. And there are limits to what any single country, however willing, can do on its own.
Denmark and Sweden: Two Extremes
The Denmarks of the world certainly have a growing concern about migrants. Denmark doesn’t just reject refugees, it outright advertises in Syria, telling people not to come. For years now, the Danes have been fighting what they perceive to be an onslaught of greedy foreigners more interested in higher living standards than becoming a part of Danish society. Danes have consistently failed to meet even the standard EU migration quotas that existed before today’s migrant crisis. This is not a sentiment reserved purely for Middle-eastern migrants either. It has also been used to describe people in the industrialized world. Many a Danish politician and even some of Denmark’s heads of state have spoken about the problem of “Welfare Tourism.”
There is without a doubt more than just a little bit of racism mixed into such a murky cocktail of rhetoric, but for the moment, it’s worth looking at the non-racist side of this. There is no doubt that people can be against migration because of racism, but there is also, as specified in the German example, a real social concern about too many migrants arriving too quickly. People who move to Denmark enter a country of just 5 million people, where most of the job market depends almost exclusively on access to higher education and having a mastery of the Danish Language (which is not easy to learn). 800,000 or even 80,000 new people pose a massive societal challenge for such a small and largely homogeneous country.
Denmark has recently stationed Police on its border with Germany
It’s not popular to say, but the Danes have circumvented a great deal of societal headaches and social problems by pursuing an unspoken goal of cultural homogeny. Denmark’s neighbor Sweden, a country of barely 10 million, has taken the opposite approach, with plans to accept nearly 200,000 refugees by the end of 2015. The result has been a surge in the popularity of a fundamentally right-wing party with largely fascist origins. That news has also come coupled with a recent announcement from Sweden’s Migration Minister saying that the country is already struggling to supply the refugees that they presently have with enough beds.
Those issues, however, are short term concerns. In the long term, developed economies require skills and social norms that take a long time to learn, even if you are from another developed country. Small countries, whatever their attitude about new arrivals, also cannot be expected to fix a global migration crisis on their own. When the integration of migrants from foreign countries is done improperly, or even just too quickly, it can worsen rather than improve race relations within a country. This is true even for countries as historically left-wing as those in Scandinavia. It’s also yet another reason why the issue of migration needs to be taken on globally. Unsurprisingly, Sweden and Germany have already called for a larger European response in the effort to help migrants, but the truth of the matter is that we need a worldwide response, especially one that accounts for the conflicts that have pushed so many people out of their homes.
The Problem with Superpowers
The United States and the Russian Federation, although different in many ways, look fairly similar when it comes to matters of foreign policy. Both have intervened in the Middle East, as well as in Ukraine. Whether it’s invasions of Iraq, Crimea, or their shared failures in Afghanistan, Americans and Russians have a bad habit of stirring up conflicts to justify their own misguided military actions. They all too often result in arming up a group of people they know very little about, only to use them for target practice a few years later. Obama’s pledges to take down islamic extremists and defeat authoritarian strongmen look laughable when the uprisings of the Arab Spring and NATO campaigns in the Middle East neither give way to strong democracies, nor pacify leaders like Putin or Assad. Putin too comes off as equally hypocritical. His most recent UN speech rightfully criticizes the United States for selling arms to dubious militias in the very regions where it claims to be combating islamist fighters, but Putin then utterly fails to point out why violent separatist groups in Eastern Ukraine somehow keep acquiring Russian-made military hardware.
Power politics have led to bombings, uprisings, and killings that were either created or intensified by American and Russian influences. Places that were once stable now are not, and people are logically trying to get out of there. Although Europe bares the brunt of the migrants, Europeans are not the key agents in creating conflicts that increase the number of migrants from the Muslim world and Eastern Europe to the West (although the arms industries in Britain and France have done more than their fair share to supply the very countries and military factions that they also claim engage in human rights violations). Throw in Proxy wars everywhere from Africa to Yemen and it becomes clear that most migrants aren’t merely seeking a higher pay grade, they’re fleeing regions where personal safety is hardly a certainty.
Whatever the United States or Russia say about their plans to help the people of Syria, Ukraine, Iraq, or anywhere else, it’s worth noting that they are currently in the business of dropping bombs, not accepting asylum seekers. The US so far is accepting refugees in the mere tens of thousands. Russia, even fewer. Taking mass amounts of displaced migrants from the very conflict zones in which they have operated would be the strongest gesture of good will that either the United States or Russia could make to demonstrate that their interests truly are geared toward helping the people of those countries. To its credit, the United States did actively pursue such a policy during Vietnam. The fact that it has forgotten how to do this today not only puts a bigger burden on Europe, but also discredits America’s own claims of being a force for global stability. Russia too delegitimizes itself when it props up Assad more than it seeks to stop ISIS.
It’s not to say that all military action from either country is always the wrong choice. Still, unilateral behavior on the world stage from both countries when coupled with their unwillingness to clean up their own messes has demonstrated that no migration crisis can be resolved without policy changes from both American and Russia.
Don’t Forget About the Gulf
The United States and Russia have not always behaved admirably, especially in the Middle East, but it is wrong to blame all of the destruction squarely on their sporadic instances of hawkish interventionism. The inability of autocratic regimes in the Middle East to overcome ethnic and religious divides among their countries have been at least as disastrous. Post World War I borders cannot take the blame for every modern conflict, and weapons from NATO and Russia can only do damage because there are extremist groups who want to buy them.
Some blame Islam, but countries with sizable Muslim populations such as Malaysia and Indonesia have proven that countries with large Muslim populations living in multiethnic societies are far from doomed to succumbing to sectarian violence. Malaysia in particular has also somewhat demonstrated that authoritarian regimes are capable of gradually transitioning to democracies on their own. The gulf countries, however, have not taken that path. Using oil money to both fund terrorism and enforce the Shari’ah in some areas, they simultaneously sew the seeds of regional conflict while agreeing to take zero refugees from Syria and Iraq. This is particularly appalling because countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other gulf states share customs, culture, and most important of all the Arabic language with Syrians and Iraqis. Nowhere else could migrants from these conflict zones more quickly integrate both culturally and economically than with their neighbors.
The UAE has accepted more palm tree-shaped islands than it has Syrian refugees
Beyond the Gulf, other countries such as Turkey and Iran have seen authoritarianism blossom as nearby conflicts justify ever more iron-fisted approaches to what has already become a humanitarian disaster. Climate change also remains a pressing problem, especially in the parched Middle-East. More and more evidence suggests that it was drought, not just Assad’s policies, that catalyzed a revolution in Syria’s already overcrowded and impoverished cities. Without a proper global response to climate change, today’s hundreds of thousands of migrants in search of jobs and social stability might well one day give way to hundreds of millions of migrants simply in search of water.
The Solution? Do Your Part
Today’s migration crisis is not over yet, nor is it likely to be the last. Globally speaking, drought, drug wars, gang violence, and militia groups in Africa and Latin America still have the potential to explode into migrant-making forces every bit as potent as the ones fueling today’s migration crisis. Syria’s civil war has killed over 250,000 people, but Mexico’s drug war has already killed over 100,000 people, which means it’s already operating on a scale (if not with an ideology) resembling a civil war. As we know already, although the developed world needs migrants and must do more to help them, even the most generous migration quotas in the West cannot help all of the people who could potentially become displaced or harmed.
The EU has over 450 million people, and consists of mostly advanced countries in need of young labor. With a more organized response to refugees, it could easily absorb the few million migrants currently moving westward or stuck in Turkish tents and on Greek Islands. In contrast, Africa alone has over 800 million people. High birth rates will put that number into the billions by mid-century. They cannot all be expected to move to Europe if something catastrophic occurs.
Assuming that countries around the world are already tackling climate change and figuring out how many migrants their society is willing and able to take care of in a given amount of time (and that’s a very big assumption), we still must do as this report suggests and turn national efforts into global efforts. The developed world, not just the West, must recognize that if it is going to accept money, labor, and other resources from abroad, it must also to some extent accept people from abroad. Small and medium-sized European countries like Sweden and Germany must do more to coordinate their efforts with other countries and not bite off more than they can chew, for that risks pushing their own societies into a state of greater instability. Countries that engage in military intervention, such as Russia and the United States cannot drop munitions and bombs onto countries and then take no responsibility for the people that such actions displace. The Gulf States also have an obligation to themselves and to their neighbors to not just help those who are displaced, but fight to quell the sectarian groups that create the conditions for more refugee crises.
To prevent further human suffering, both at home and abroad, we have to take what looks like an impossible list of goals and condense them into bits that we can handle on a daily basis. This means looking at today’s crisis through the lens of interconnectivity rather than petty nationalism or generalized liberalism. It means being machiavellian at times when emotional appeals are tempting. It also requires that each and every person reexamine how they look at international aid. Aid is not charity. It is a means of ensuring that those in the developing world have the means to live stable lives in their home countries. This is something that both staunch right wing nativists and outspoken left wing citizens of the world can get behind. International stability comes from global efforts to help people all around the world build and adopt the kinds of institutions that lead to lower birth rates, higher living standards, and more politically stable governments.
Our world of many nations is already an irreversibly interconnected one. If we wish to live prosperously for the rest of the 21st century, it’s time we started acting like it.