LONDON – Europe faces an immigration predicament. Mainstream politicians, held hostage by xenophobic parties, adopt anti-immigrant rhetoric to win over fearful publics, while the foreign-born are increasingly marginalized in schools, cities, and at the workplace. Yet, despite high unemployment across much of the continent, too many employers lack the workers they need. Engineers, doctors, and nurses are in short supply; so, too, are farmhands and health aides. And Europe can never have enough entrepreneurs, whose ideas drive economies and create jobs.
The prevailing skepticism about immigration is not wholly unfounded. Many communities are genuinely polarized, which makes Europeans understandably anxious. But to place the blame for this on immigrants is wrong, and exacerbates the problem. We are all at fault.
By not taking responsibility, we allowed immigration to become the scapegoat for a host of other, unrelated problems. The enduring insecurity caused by the global economic crisis, Europe’s existential political debates, and the rise of emerging powers is too often expressed in reactions against migrants. Not only is this unjust, but it distracts us from crafting solutions to the real problems.
European countries must finally and honestly acknowledge that, like the United States, Canada, and Australia, they are lands of immigrants. The percentage of foreign-born residents in several European countries – including Spain, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, and Greece – is similar to that in the US.
Yet, despite this, we do not make the necessary investments to integrate newcomers into our schools and workplaces. Nor have we done enough to reshape our public institutions to be inclusive and responsive to our diverse societies. The issue is not how many new immigrants are accepted into the European Union, but acknowledging the nature and composition of the societies in which we already live.
It is ironic – and dangerous – that Europe’s anti-immigrant sentiment is peaking just when global structural changes are fundamentally shifting migration flows. The most important transformation is the emergence of new poles of attraction. Entrepreneurs, migrants with Ph.Ds, and those simply with a desire to improve their lives are flocking to places like Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia, Mexico, China, and India. In the coming decade, most of the growth in migration will take place in the global south. The West is no longer the Promised Land, placing at risk Europe’s ability to compete globally.
The aging of Europe’s population is historically unprecedented. The number of workers will decline precipitously, and could shrink by almost one-third by mid-century, with immense consequences for Europe’s social model, the vitality of its cities, its ability to innovate and compete, and for relations among generations as the old become heavily reliant on the young. And, while history suggests that countries that welcome newcomers’ energy and vibrancy compete best internationally, Europe is taking the opposite tack by tightening its borders.
But all is not lost. Europe got itself into this situation through a combination of inaction and short-sighted policymaking. This leaves considerable room for improvement. In fact, there are rays of hope in certain corners of Europe.
Consider Sweden, which has transformed its immigration policy by allowing employers to identify the immigrant workers whom they need (the policy has built-in safeguards to give preference to Swedish and EU citizens). In more rational times, these reforms would be the envy of Europe, especially given the relative resilience of Sweden’s economy. They certainly have caught the attention of Australia and Canada, which aim to emulate them.
There have also been innovations in integrating immigrants. Some initiatives, albeit modest, encourage those with immigrant backgrounds to apply for public-sector jobs in police forces, fire departments, media, and elsewhere. Such measures also respond to the urgent need for public institutions that look like the populations they serve.
There are many other tools to advance integration. We understand well the importance of early childhood education, and what kinds of programs can bridge the gap between immigrant and native children. We know as well the importance of finding a job in the integration process. We know how to recognize immigrants’ skills better, and how to provide the right kind of vocational training. We know how to ward off discrimination in hiring.
But, while we know what to do, we now need to muster the political will to do it. The good news is that, if we get integration right, we will be far more likely to bring publics along on more open immigration policies.
Equally important is international cooperation on migration. Last year, during the Arab revolutions, the EU missed a historic opportunity to begin weaving together the two sides of the Mediterranean. It failed to open its doors to young students, entrepreneurs, and other North Africans. Today, the EU is making a more serious effort to engage its southern neighborhood. Among the potential opportunities are free-trade agreements, an easing of visa requirements for university students, temporary work programs, and incentives to attract entrepreneurs.
No country is an island when it comes to migration, and none can address it alone. We have a long way to go, probably in a climate that will not turn favorable to immigration for many years. How much progress we can make will hinge on our ability to break through the myths about migration.
Migration is changing in fundamental ways, and we must continue to push ourselves to devise systems and approaches that respond to new realities. If we succeed, human mobility can become one of the great assets of the twenty-first century.
Copyright Project Syndicate
For further information on the topic, please view the following publications from our partners: