Demographics, not xenophobia, inform EU asylum decisions

Analysis: Germany’s aging workforce provides extra incentive to take in more people, experts say

As Europe grapples with a refugee crisis that has seen 350,000 people enter the continent so far this year, the variety of responses from individual governments expose not just political differences but demographic ones too.

In recent days thousands of refugees have arrived by train, bus and car in Austria from Hungary —  the latest leg of a journey that for many involved climbing under razor wire fences or boarding unsafe boats. In many cases, the destination is Germany. Most come from Afghanistan, Syria and Eritrea and are fleeing conflict in unprecedented numbers. 

Germany's Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said Tuesday it would take in 500,000 refugees per year and is expecting to resettle up to 800,000 refugees this year. The United Kingdom, by contrast, has committed to taking in only an additional 4,000 refugees over the next five years by offering humanitarian protection to those living in camps in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon through established U.N. refugee agency channels, granting them temporary protection for five years rather than permanently resettling more people who have made their way to Britain. 

“Their argument is that you should discourage people from moving on their own,” said Susan Fratzke, a policy analyst at the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute.

The difference in approach is, in part, informed by the countries’ demographics. The U.K.’s working population is younger and is made up of a larger share of immigrants who have migrated to the country throughout the years, according to Carlos Vargas-Silva, an associate professor and a senior researcher at Oxford University’s migration observatory team. A 2004 decision by some EU countries, such as Germany, to temporarily bar immigrants from new members such as Poland — from which, many feared, lower-skilled laborers would flood European labor markets — from getting work permits has sent many to look for jobs in the U.K., where such provisions were not enforced.

“It means there is not the same aging of the population as in other EU countries,” Vargas-Silva said. “In other EU countries, having a younger labor force is a priority, and they are being more receptive.”

In the coming years, “Europe’s population will turn increasingly gray,” according to a 2015 report by the European Commission. Demographic trends in Germany mean that public pension expenditure will rise from 2 to 3 percent of the country’s GDP, among the highest levels of EU states, the report found.

Next to humanitarian considerations, Germany’s aging population helps explain officials’ enhanced willingness to resettle huge numbers of refugees, said Fratzke. The positive attitude toward migration is reflected in a recent employers’ push with the German government to invest in training programs, language classes and processes that would certify Syrian refugees’ skills acquired at universities abroad, she added.

“Many of the Syrians who are coming do have more education, and that’s something they’re really trying to capitalize on, to the extent that’s possible,” she said.

Having refugees join the workforce is regarded as key to offset the tremendous cost associated with providing shelter, food and education before they are granted asylum. A new EU-wide rule, passed in July, shortened the period during which they are not allowed to work, from a year to nine months, even if their application is pending, she added.

More EU countries are warming up to the idea of a mandatory resettlement quota to more equally distribute the burden — and benefits — of resettling refugees across member countries. Germany and recently France advocated for its swift adoption at the upcoming refugee crisis summit in Strasbourg, France, on Sept. 14.

“There has been a greater emphasis on the humanitarian aspects than the cost of asylum seekers,” Vargas-Silva said. "There is always going to be some opposition, but if you compare the attitudes now to six months ago, it’s going to be very different.”

With wire services

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