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Refugees will change Europe for the better

Immigration could help European countries reverse their negative demographic trends and boost their economic growth

October 25, 2015 2:00AM ET

The influx of refugees into Europe from the Middle East and North Africa continues unabated. At least 1.5 million people are expected reach European shores before the end of 2015. Today European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker is hosting emergency talks with leaders from Central and Eastern Europe to address the crisis.

As the numbers of asylum seekers climbs, populists and critics are pushing the panic button, which is reflected in the violence against refugees and a rise in support for far-right parties. But their alarmism is misguided. Newcomers should be welcomed as a blessing for European countries. Europe desperately needs more people to reverse its negative demographic trend, and it could benefit from the predominantly Muslim immigrants in other ways.

Demographic crisis

First, demographics: Deaths outpace births across Europe. The gap is acute and pressing in Germany, but the Europe-wide problem receives too little attention. European leaders must lure young people to populate their cities, pay pensions for retirees and care for them as well as to sustain the continent’s growth.

Germany’s growing economy may be exceptional in recession-plagued Europe, but its demographic quandary isn’t. Germans have been graying as a nation and dwindling in numbers for decades. If this trend persists, the German population will shrink from 81.5 million to 60 million over the next 35 years — even if 100,000 people immigrate to Germany every year. In 2014, Germany welcomed 550,483 new migrants to keep its total population steady. But unless fertility rates rebound dramatically, a regular inflow of immigrants is needed from outside the country.

In contrast to the early 1990s, when Germany instigated EU-wide asylum reform to limit immigration, today, the German business community — already struggling to fill job vacancies and empty spots in vocational training programs — is firmly behind Chancellor Angela Merkel’s welcoming stance and wants the newcomers trained and integrated more swiftly.

Other European countries such as Spain and Portugal are also suffering from low birthrates exacerbated by the emigration of hundreds of thousands of countrymen since the euro crisis hit in 2010. Portugal’s population is estimated to drop, from 10.5 million to 6.3 million by 2060.

But the crunch could be worse in Central European countries that are stubbornly sealing off their borders. Eastern and Central European countries are expected to lose the most population per capita over the next few decades. For example, Bulgaria’s population could drop 12 percent by 2030 and 28 percent by 2050. Should current trends continue, Central Europe could be depopulated and economically depressed, even as pro-immigrant nations such as Germany and Sweden become more multicultural and prosperous.

It is time for European leaders to recognize immigration for the asset that it can be.

Economic benefits

The refugees offer Europe more than their numbers. Their reception and integration will require investment that could help pull Europe out of recession. Language instructors, social workers, translators, teachers, vocational trainers and other personnel are needed to facilitate their socialization. For example, the refugee inflow could finally push Germany to initiate a spending program that experts, including economists at Deutsche Bank, have long advocated for to sustain the country’s growth and help pull the rest of Europe out of its slump. 

Germany will also have to consider the construction of social housing for the refugees, which would benefit low-income Germans as well. In recent years, the country has allowed its once vaunted public housing programs — rental apartments owned and managed by the state or nonprofit organizations — to slip. Almost no new social housing has been built since 2007, which has led to rent hikes everywhere. Hamburg and Berlin now have plans to build 5,600 and 3,000 units, respectively. Other municipalities should follow suit.

Finally, the overwhelmingly Muslim refugees could be a boon to security. After all, most of the Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi refugees are fleeing Islamic fundamentalism and thus are the least likely to support radical groups. In fact, their experiences and attitudes could have a moderating effect on Europe’s Muslim communities. It is plausible that radicals could still use the refugee flow to plant sleeper cells across Europe, but German authorities have yet to detect a single figure on their security lists. Moreover, by absorbing more Muslim refugees, Europe is de facto beginning a process of reconciliation with the Muslim world, especially in the Middle East and Northern Africa. Europe’s generous response to Muslim refugees may even bring Occident and Orient closer together. Islam is now firmly a part of Europe, not an exception to the Christian rule. Once the war ends, Europeans may get to know Syria the way they now know Turkey.


However, all of this can happen only if European leaders pursue integration smartly. For example, the newcomers cannot be concentrated in outlying suburbs, as with the banlieues of Paris. European leaders should look to the lessons France and Germany learned in the postwar decades, when large numbers of Turkish and other immigrants arrived to work in their factories and fields.

The West Germans were much too slow to recognize these migrants as fellow citizens but rather saw them as guest workers who would pack their bags and one day go home. Today those Turkish immigrants hold German passports, pay taxes, hold management positions and intermarry. Germany is stronger, healthier, more prosperous and diverse because of them.

It is equally imperative that the newly arriving refugees accept the basic tenets of Western society and its rules. Islam itself isn’t as much a barrier as is cultural conservatism, which infuses many religions. If we openly welcome and orient them in it, the refugees will learn about European society and internalize its values more wholeheartedly. Merkel’s “we will manage” stance was the first step in the right direction.

It is time for European leaders to recognize immigration for the asset that it can be. They cannot allow far-right parties — increasingly in ascendance — to dominate the discourse. As The Guardian’s Will Hutton put it in a recent op-ed, “Whether we’re discussing the Roman or British empires, 15th century Venice or 20th century New York or London today, great civilizations and dynamic cities have been defined by being open to immigrants and refugees.” 

Europe is at a historic crossroads. It should seize the opportunity. 

Paul Hockenos is a journalist living in Berlin. He has covered the transformations of the EU for over 25 years.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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