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International Relations Migration

Europe’s Immigration Challenge

Young men in Morocco, Europe on the horizon. Photo: moritz_siebert/flickr.

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


Peter Sutherland, Chairman of Goldman Sachs International and the London School of Economics, and a UN Special Representative for Migration and Development, was Director General of the World Trade Organization, EU Commissioner for Competition, and Attorney General of Ireland. Cecilia Malmstrom is EU Commissioner for Home Affairs and was Sweden’s Minister for Europe.

For further information on the topic, please view the following publications from our partners:

The Migration Industry and Future Directions for Migration Policy

Protecting Migrants in Complex Crises

Environmental Migration: Policy Gaps and Response Strategies


For more information on issues and events that shape our world please visit the ISN’s Security Watch and Editorial Plan.

One reply on “Europe’s Immigration Challenge”

> NOT xenophobic because you wrote, “global structural changes are fundamentally shifting migration flows.” People that disagree with the Gold_manS&chs decree are NOT xenophobic, they are dissenters. Gold_manS&chs decrees “global structural changes,” ergo there should be open borders. Sorry Gold_manS&chs, your hegemony and oppression are transparent. despite your xenophobic-name-calling attempts to marginalize those that disagee with you.

> It is a false dichotomy for Gold_manS&chs to claim, those that want a reasonable control over borders, ergo, blame immigrants to be 100% at fault or that they have an irrational fear of immigrants. Your agenda to replace European-born with those abroad is hiding behind your false dichotomy canard argument.

> Open border labor dumping, race-to-the-bottom wage offshoring, and product dumping are some real problems. You are transparent in your cherry picking.

> Everyone outside of Africa is an immigrant, does not mean the world should have open borders.

> The ISSUE is, “Ask not what your NEW country will do for you.” The issue is, “Ask what you will do for your NEW country.” THIS is what you ask of the European-born, and immigrants should NOT be an exception. Learn the language, the culture, and the HOW will you DO for your NEW country?

> I have read no evidence, EVIDENCE, of people from abroad running to Mexico. To the contrary, many of Mexico, including those with a Bachelor’s degree and higher, are planning on leaving Mexico to enter the USA or Europe illegally. Where is your support of your migration assertion to Mexico, et al?

> The worldwide Baby Boom was unprecedented, and NOT perpetual. As BB retires, it will age Europe for obvious reasons. “Number of workers declining precipitously” is fear mongering and is not born out by the increased life expectancy and labor force expectancy of the BBs. We are presently in a worldwide labor glut, not a worldwide labor shortage. If the G7 had a labor shortage, their economies would not be stagnating or declining.

> “built-in safeguards” ≠ Enforcement

> Quotas for public-sector jobs? Do you advocate all jobs having NO LESS than 90% native-born? No? Typical…Why? May have to raise the wage?

> Do you like discrimination based on wage preference for foreign-born? Easier to control the foreign-born that do not have roots, right!

> Integration is easy, it is called assimilation. Native-born do not assimilate to newcomers, when in Rome do as the Romans. Unless you are immigrants named Visigoths or Vandals. Right! That migration was from the North and the East though, that could never happen from the South. Right?

> The WT center towers were taken down by those on a visa for university students.

> Human mobility is good. Lack of law, order, and enforcement control is bad and has been destroyed by greed for centuries. Something that escapes the Gold_manS&chs ethos.

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