Globalization has precipitated the largest human migration the world has ever seen. Today, more than 231 million people–3.25% of the world’s population–reside in countries in which they weren’t born, thus changing the human landscape of those countries forever. When people move from one place to another, they carry with them more than just their physical belongings: their language, culture, beliefs, and values travel with them as well. The current cross-fertilization of peoples and cultures has made homogenous societies a thing of the past.
Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed in Europe after WWII, asserts that every citizen “has the liberty to travel, reside in, and/or work in any part of the state,” which is based on the principle of cosmopolitanism and the idea of mankind’s shared ownership of the Earth. Since the declaration, we’ve seen the loosening of border restrictions throughout the Western world as the economic fates of nations have drawn ever-closer together. In the 21st century, any citizen of the European Union is free move, reside, and work in any EU country they wish. The way Europe has chosen to deal with newcomers, however, from countries outside the union is another matter entirely.
In the month of April 2015, at least 1,250 migrants drowned attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea from the shores of Libya to Europe, and it’s clear that there’s a significant part of the European population that may feel relieved that they did. Rightwing political parties have sprouted up across Europe, from UKIP in the UK to the Golden Dawn in Greece, touting xenophobic party platforms and promising to preserve national integrities. Europe’s largest country, Germany, saw a drastic rise (of 25%) in racially motivated crimes last year, coinciding with the PEGIDA rallies that drew large crowds in Saxony. So far this year, arson attacks on refugee shelters and foiled terrorist plots targeting mosques show that the racial unrest is real, and it might be getting worse. People seem to naturally fear change, and with respect to immigration changes, many are lashing out, and even more are drawing inwards.
As an American living in Germany, I guess I’m part of this change, but I think there’s an important distinction to be made. All immigrants fall into one of two categories; there are those that come from the affluent west, largely educated, and largely welcomed by their recipient country’s society. These people, including me, might refer to themselves (or are referred to) as “expats.” Then there’s all the rest, what people might call the “actual immigrants”. People of the first group move laterally, from one economic “land of plenty” to another, whereas those of the second move vertically, either to escape hardship or to drastically improve their economic prospects.
This difference between the two types of people who immigrate was reflected in the German Interior Minister de Miaziére’s call to attract the “right” kind of immigrants to Germany: highly-skilled professionals who can boost the German economy. In reality, Germany will need heaping portions of both types of immigrants, skilled and hitherto “unskilled,” in order to replenish its aging population, support its top-heavy social security system, and continue its current trajectory of economic growth, as outlined by an economic advisor to the European Commission in a recent NY Times Op-ed.
But there’s no convincing your average, run-of-the-mill racist with economic arguments. That’s because there’s more at stake with immigration than the fate of the economy. Indeed the cultural fabric of countries like Germany are changing, and it’s not primarily the expats who are bringing about this change. As I’ve defined them, expats are people moving to Germany not solely for economic reasons, but perhaps for the German culture itself: the beer, the people, the old churches. Thus expats are likely to have an easier time integrating than the other immigrants, who, since they are moving primarily to make a living, might not care as much about the cultural heritage of their new home. Even if they do, they still have to overcome the latent racism of the country’s natives. Therefore we see the ghettoization of European cities, with predominantly insular Turkish, Arab, African, Vietnamese, and Pakistani communities that defy integration, retain their native cultures, and resist becoming German, French, Italian, or English.
Violent outbreaks aside, this commingling of cultures might just be good for us. It’s certainly good for the taste buds of anyone who enjoys sampling different ethnic cuisines regularly. Our most cosmopolitan cities might also be a good sign for the future; Germany’s capital Berlin is home to approximately 1 million people of immigrant background, a whopping 30% of its population, and it’s one of the most culturally tolerant places in the European Union. It may have helped that the city had been utterly destroyed and rebuilt 1-½ times over the past 70 years, so there was empty room and low cost real-estate for immigrants to move into. However, once they got here, they found for themselves an accepting, accommodating Heimat that champions multiculturalism and vocally condemns the most blatant, explicit forms of racism. But there’s still a difference in the treatment of expats and other immigrants, which further propagates a stark cultural dichotomy between those belonging to the developed, affluent West… and all the rest.