The migrant crisis has been one of the greatest challenges to the EU since its inception. And its reverberations have not ceased, despite dwindling migrant inflows. In fact, Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned that it could yet “determine Europe’s destiny.” There is a titanic war of ideas raging. On one side are the pragmatists (along with the agenda-driven), who affirm that there will be no bad consequences from welcoming migrants. On the other are the alarmists, who lament that society is being poisoned by those same migrants. These self-proclaimed Cassandras predict a future dystopia, in which Europe is riddled with unsustainable debts, rampant unemployment, epidemic crime and sexual assault, terrorism, and cultural death. In short, a European suicide. Although there are more nuanced views (those based, for example, on a combination of Kantian ethics and classic liberalism), they have been drowned out by the vociferous rabble-rousing of the immigration doomsayers, who dictate the terms of the debate. Their fearmongering, embellished with audacious hyperbole, has been a coup de maître for politicians, winning elections and referenda. But is there any empirical substance to their claims?
The immigration pessimists claim that the poverty of education and language skills among migrants will ensure that they cannot successfully integrate into the labor market. This means, they explain, siphoning off taxpayer money to foreigners, while debt levels soar and the economy sputters.
Migrants undoubtedly face formidable challenges. Only 28% of the asylum applicants who reached Germany in 2015 spoke English; a mere 2% spoke German. Immigrants born in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Eritrea, and the former Yugoslavia—the main countries of origin of the current wave of migrants—were twice as likely to have completed only lower secondary education or less, and significantly less likely to have attended college. In fact, the degrees that they do have may not even be recognized because of institutional or administrative barriers. That’s why 22% of immigrants to Europe are over-educated for the jobs they do, compared to 13% of natives. Other problems, such as laws prohibiting work while refugee status is still undecided, and high unemployment rates (in countries such as Italy and Greece) may also lower their chances of finding jobs.
Does this necessarily mean that debts will climb? In the short run, providing accommodation, subsistence, legal and integration support will be expensive: it cost 0.19% of GDP for the EU as a whole in 2016 but 1% of Sweden’s GDP and 0.35% of Germany’s. However, these costs decline rapidly because migrants inevitably find employment and contribute to state budgets through taxes. For example, the fiscal impact of waves of immigration on all European OECD countries, as well as Australia, Canada, and the United States, over the past fifty years, is on average close to zero, rarely exceeding 0.5% of GDP in either positive or negative terms. This is because migrants are overwhelmingly employed and in most countries they contribute more in taxes and social contributions than they receive in individual benefits. In fact, they may even be needed at this current time. The EU’s aging populations are straining government budgets, as pension and health payments surge while the number of taxpayers plummets. Since they are much younger (14.5 years younger on average) and have higher fertility rates, migrants can directly counter this trend. Thus, they may save us money.
The economy may benefit too. Studies of twenty-two OECD countries over a twenty-year period have evidenced that immigrants tend to have a small but positive effect on economic growth. This is reflected in economic growth expectations. For instance, the Bruegel report estimates that migrants will improve long-term GDP growth by 0.2% to 1.4% annually. The IMF expects this figure to reach 0.25% by 2020. This is due to a number of factors: consumption by immigrants (which exceeds remittances); public expenditure; and increased productivity, which arises because highly skilled migrants improve the diversity of skills available locally and increase innovation, while competition from less skilled immigrants causes natives to take up higher-skilled, more specialized jobs.
However, these are simply projections. It is possible that labor market integration will be very slow and, as a result, the costs of migration will be high. But this is contradicted by much of the literature. It seems that, whether positive or negative, the economic consequences of migration on the host country will be, on aggregate, small.
Some worry about the opposite development—that migrants will be so successful in the labor market that they will steal jobs from locals. This assertion does have some veracity. In some instances, refugee waves have been associated with detrimental short-term effects on the employment prospects of some natives, particularly workers who have not completed high school. However, this is not the rule. On numerous occasions (1980s Miami, 1990s Israel, 1990s Europe) local job prospects and wages have been unaffected. And even when they were affected, the effect was small, as has thus far been demonstrated in Germany.
This is because migrants are not perfect substitutes for locals. They differ in language, skills, work experience, and in how they are integrated into the production process. This means that their work can sometimes complement that of the natives. Moreover, they consume goods, which generates demand, which in turn creates jobs. Often, the wages of locals even rise. Those who usually lose out are not unskilled natives, but future immigrants. In addition, the EU’s aging population means that, without migration, EU27 will lose 27% of its working age population between 2010 and 2050. Some labor markets are already tight. 46% of German employers have trouble recruiting. Thus migrants may well be filling gaps in labor shortages.
Some claim that locals are disadvantaged due to increased competition from migrants on the housing market. Migrant influxes do elevate prices, but there is no support for the assumption that this is the main reason for recent housing shortages, in Sweden for example, which are mainly the result of decades of under-construction. There are also policies to effectively combat this. Germany, for instance, has made more land available and loosened building restrictions.
Alarmists generate the most visceral reactions when they turn to the topic of crime. They broadcast catchphrases such as “multiculturalism is dead,” as if to insinuate that ethnic diversity is incompatible with stable and healthy societies. They embroider this narrative with tales of young male unemployed migrants who have no choice but to resort to crime, given their desperate situations.
However, this does not reflect reality. Multiculturalism can be loosely described as a government policy that prioritizes anti-discrimination, and, as such, eschews requirements for minority groups to adopt the majority language and norms. That it has failed to prevent segregated areas and disproportionate unemployment among minority groups is unquestionable. But this does not provide evidence for the failure of multi-ethnic societies. Though the consensus among sociologists is that greater ethnic diversity leads to a erosion in social trust—defined as the degree to which one can trust people whom one does not know personally—this trend is not universal, and it does not translate into crime. With very few exceptions, (legal) immigrants have no effect on crime rates, as we have seen so far in Germany.
Multiculturalism is not only about attitudes towards ethnicity, but also encapsulates religion. Around half of the migrants have been Muslims. The question of Islamic values has therefore been mooted. This is curious, given that Islam encompasses many different ethnicities, nationalities, languages, and sects. Among immigrants to the West, religion is not as strong a predictor as country of origin for outcomes such as individual values or crime rates. This suggests that local culture and the specific religious sect involved may be more important factors. Islam in general is a factor, of course: it shapes culture and influences the individual branches of the religion. But Muslim values can vary widely. However, since immigration pessimists base their arguments on Islamic values, let’s address those more closely.
Many in the West lambast Islamic values. They cite deplorable laws and worrying survey results from across the Muslim world. Yet this is slightly misleading because Muslim migrants tend to converge on values somewhere halfway between those of the origin country and the Western host on topics such as gender equality and sexual liberalization, among others. Though some self-selection confounds the results (people already sympathetic towards Western cultures are more likely to relocate there) there is probably a reciprocal process at work, especially for the second and third generations of migrant families. Muslim migrants do not come to Western countries with rigidly fixed attitudes: instead, to a certain extent, they gradually absorb the values prevalent in their host societies. Increased education and wealth also have a liberalizing effect.
However gaps in values still endure after controlling for education and socio-economic status, indicating that culture and religion still play an important role. This is reflected in the fact that levels of Muslim distaste for homosexuality in the West are consistently (though not always) higher than those of other ethnic and religious groups, especially since the recent movement for marriage equality. These attitudes contravene what are considered human rights in the West. Immigration pessimists also argue that the lesser standing of women in the eyes of some Muslims may manifest as discrimination against them, for example, when sharia councils will not approve a divorce despite abusive or cheating husbands. These cases are rare, but they do occur. Sharia councils are only known to exist in Britain. It is reasonable to be concerned about them. Alarmists also argue that a lack of respect for women can, in extreme cases, facilitate chilling acts against them. They reference grooming gangs like those in Britain, and mass rapes as in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. However, that these cases are symptomatic of a Muslim or migrant tendency for sexual violence has been empirically debunked. In other words, there is no evidence to suggest that greater Muslim or migrant numbers produce higher rates of sexual assault.
Other immigration doomsayers highlight terrorism as an inexorable repercussion of migrant inflows. Although jihadist attacks are not the only substantial contributors to terrorism in the US, they are in Europe, so fears are already high. However, first-generation Muslim migrants to Europe are almost never jihadists, and, in particular, they do not exhibit higher rates of jihadism than those whose families originate in Europe. This makes sense: people who have just escaped civil war, oppression, or poverty are unlikely to be interested in attacking the very society that has provided them with safety and the opportunity for a fresh start.
Some alarmists know this. They instead maintain (correctly) that most jihadists in Europe are second-generation Muslim migrants. What is not reported is that the overwhelming majority of them were originally from the Maghreb region (see this study, this, and this). Yet the proportion of incomers to the EU from this region is a measly 1.9% (calculated using data on countries of origin for migrants who arrived in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017). One could retort by declaring the results void due to a sampling issue, since Muslims in France, Spain and Belgium are primarily from this region. But this is not true of Europe as a whole. For instance, Muslims in Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Austria are mainly from Turkey. Thus, the assertion that migrant inflows will entail an increase in jihadist activities is not backed up by the literature.
Some argue that Europe is increasingly becoming a jihadist hotbed, because of the failure of integration methods, including almost diametrically opposite government approaches, such as the British model of multiculturalism and the French model of assimilation (which requires citizens to embrace the majority language and norms). This framework and these definitions lack nuance but it is true that both approaches have been unsuccessful in preventing segregation or disproportionate unemployment. Thus, the contention is that, with greater influxes of migrants, it will become even more difficult to integrate them and rates of radicalization will mushroom as a consequence.
However, many jihadists are not involved with Muslim communities. Some jihadists are converts, including a quarter of French ones. Thus, it is not clear that the inefficacy of current integration approaches has produced a breeding ground for young impressionable migrants, easily beguiled by extremist ideologies.
For some, terrorism is not the only danger. They fear the influence of Muslims on national culture and institutions, anxieties summed up by the phrase “the Islamization of Europe.” It is correct to say that many Western Muslims would prefer that national institutions were governed by sharia law. They represent only a minority of Western Muslims, however, and are only concerned with family law. Moreover, more than half of Muslims worldwide believe sharia law should only apply to Muslims. They also overwhelmingly support democracy.
This pervasive trepidation about future Muslim control is probably due to the apocryphal Muslim overpopulation narrative—the idea that Muslims will soon constitute the majority group in European society. Indeed, Europeans vastly overestimate the Muslim population in their countries: many by five times as much, and some by more than fifty times. Even with more migration, Muslims are expected to comprise only 11.2% of Europe’s population by 2050. Muslim fertility is falling. In fact, in some Muslim majority countries researchers are worried about greying populations. This trend extends to Western countries, where the fertility rates of Muslim migrants tends to converge with that of the natives, since fertility has much less to do with religion than with economics. Muslims will therefore probably remain a minority group in Europe. This minor shift in Muslim population size does not seem so tectonic that it deserves a pejorative name.
Some immigration pessimists agree with the analysis above, but differ on the response they advocate. They support stemming the flow of migrants by forcibly manning smuggling routes in order to deter more from travelling and putting their lives at risk. They buttress their argument by explaining that erratic flows are much more difficult to handle than stable ones. They then list the other benefits of hosting migrants nearer home: it’s cheaper due to a lower cost of living; labor market integration is likelier when languages are similar; and migrants will find it easier to return home (where many have family), thus preventing permanent brain drain from crisis countries.
While all these are all reasonable points, the proposed method is dangerous. Demand for asylum is quite inelastic, so migrants are bound to attempt more dangerous approaches, to circumvent restrictions. For example, Operation Triton’s border controls failed to reduce migrant numbers, while the numbers of migrant drownings grew substantially. Similarly, according to the House of Lords EU Committee, Operation Sophia’s attempts to neutralize migrant smuggling routes in the Mediterranean “had not in any meaningful way deterred the flow of migrants, disrupted the smugglers’ networks, or impeded the business of people smuggling.” Yet “an unintended consequence of Operation Sophia’s destruction of vessels has been that the smugglers have adapted, sending migrants to sea in unseaworthy vessels, leading to an increase in deaths.” Ideas like asylum centers in Africa or financing conflict-torn communities may be better. Nonetheless, this argument against migration is deeply flawed.
The EU has not handled this crisis without mistakes. But that does not mean the goal was misguided. Any sizeable group entering a new society will probably have adverse effects on it. This has been no exception. There are reasonable concerns about immigration. These should be addressed in a direct, frank, and dialectical fashion. If they are not, the plain-spoken misinformation peddled by the alarmists will seem more honest. Priggish accusations of bigotry will only silence discussion, and inevitably sow the seeds for nativist backlash. We must win this war of ideas. Over 10,000 migrants have died. Without Europe’s assistance, this figure might well have been much higher. Although the majority of migrants are economically motivated, a substantial number are not. These are fellow human beings, desperately unlucky people dealing with conflicts and dangers beyond their control. Many have fled war, persecution, and “immediate danger,” risking their lives to reach safety. If they don’t deserve our help, who does?