Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

A Western Look at Migration in the Financial Crisis

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Migration is increasingly seen as a threat to Western democracies. A mistake, as it could allow these countries to stay strong in the multi-polarized world.

At the beginning of December, the Netzwerk Migration in Europa e.V. and the University of Bremen, Germany, organised the conference “Rethinking Migration in Times of Economic Crisis in Europe in the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (House of the World’s Culture ) in Berlin and invited leading investigators in the fields of research on migration, history and policy. Not so much aiming to describe the changes in global migration flows, the conference targeted mostly the consequences of the economic crisis on the evolution of the perception and policies concerning migrants in Europe and incidentally in the US. Deterioration of living conditions, fear of foreigners, low birth rates, decreasing population, feeling of decline, migration policy and climate refugees, those points moved the two day conference.

“200 million people around the globe are suffering the results of the financial crisis, they risk pauperization”, noted Prof. Dirk Hoerder from the University of Arizona in the first speech of the conference. These represent a strong migration pressure to the rich parts of the world, to those parts where jobs can be found, to those parts which also suffer from the crisis and see their economical advantages endangered in the globalized world.

The main pull factor for migration: Work

In most parts of Europe, unemployment is growing. But, as Hoerder noted, migrants are ready to occupy any kind of work positions which locals aren’t willing to. The main pull factor is the availability of jobs in richer countries: “Night shifts in hospitals and cleaning work is frequently done by migrants who are looking for a way to earn some money. They aren’t reluctant to take bad, unprotected, sometimes illegal jobs.” According to most figures, around 12 million illegal migrants are living in the US and most of them work. The economy needs them.

Factors opposing migration

But two factors are tempering this main pull factor. Firstly, the Voluntary Return Policies (VRP). Some countries such as Spain, France, the Netherlands or the Czech Republic have implemented return mechanisms which offer migrants in those countries the possibility to get back home with an economical compensation. But as Dr. Piotr Plewa from the European University Institute of the University of Delaware said, this effort wasn’t successful, “the migrants don’t find any good conditions home or possibilities to start a long lasting business, they often try to get back to the host country they left”. These programs presented for example in Spain as ways to “protect migrants from recession” aren’t massively being applied for by migrants.

The second factor tempering the main pull factor could be the growing negative feeling towards foreigners in Europe. Prof. Wolfgang Benz from the Center for Research on Antisemitism portrayed some similarities between the discrimination of Muslims today and the discrimination against Jews at the beginning of the last century. Benz has been criticized for these assertions but he still recognises a first step which is common to past Jew and modern Muslim discrimination: “The statement that the minority isn’t able to integrate because of its origins, because of its culture, because of its way of living. That is the common element.” According to his conclusions, Benz says that this is the first step to the legal discrimination of minorities. In different European countries this kind of discourse is being spread in the public debate: in the Netherlands from Gerd Wilders, in Switzerland from the party UDC which is organising referendums on foreigner policies, in France some see the ban of the burka as islamophobic and in Germany similar point of views are being spread by former politician Thilo Sarrazin.. Angela Merkel took also part in the debate describing the German model of a multicultural society as a failure.

These points can moderate the main pull factor and complicate the everyday life of migrants already living in the host countries. For Benz, the reasons of this xenophobic rise are clear, it’s connected to the crisis: “In a situation of fear and loss of perspective, people are easily convinced by radical thoughts and need to find a scapegoat to their unease.” Which are often foreign people being seen as a cultural invasion, a threat to local cultural identity. Hoerder reminded of the historical context and pointed out the double standard which is now applied. He underlined the behaviour of the European “white man” society of the last centuries. During 500 years of colonisation, the “white man” has been responsible of many atrocities, “he killed, enslaved millions, controlled others, influenced their cultures, created artificial borders, passports, etc. The white man complains today of foreigners in their countries, but there is no possible comparison. It’s hypocrisy, because the present migrants just want to work at any cost to earn a decent living. They want to work, not enslave anyone.”

Germany lacks a highly qualified workforce

Dr. Dietrich v. Loeffelholz from the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, pointed out that these foreigners are paradoxically necessary to the host countries, and even more in the next years. In the case of Germany, two main points are of particular relevance. The country has the lowest birth rate in Europe and the migratory balance is negative: more people are leaving the country than coming.

According to Loeffelholz, the very low German birth rate could lead to tension in the future. In the Bavarian city of Nuremberg, for example, 60% of the population under 10 years old is of migrant descent. This could be a challenge for integration, which isn’t consensual as Sarrazin’s and Merkel’s declaration show.

On the other side, very educated people are leaving the country, finding better conditions elsewhere and foreign educated people don’t want to come. The German Engineer Association declared that the German economy is lacking of about 40,000 engineers. Where shall they be found? Some voices in Germany want them to come from abroad. But they aren’t coming. Without these creative heads, Germany could lose its position as the second exporting power in the world. Other parts of the globe seem to be more attractive: the BRIC-States (Brasil, Russia, India, China) or some countries in the Middle East as Dubai for example.

Western democracies: Fear of losing significance

These two factors (low birth rate, loss of appeal), which aren’t unconnected to the crisis, are leading to a fear of the future. The Western democracies feel the world is getting multipolar and that their voice loses weight. Hoerder believes the impact of the crisis on the minds is stronger in the US than in Europe because the US isn’t the unchallenged world-power it used to be 20 years ago. It produces less, entire cities are losing their industry (i.e. Detroit, where General Motors goes downhill, half of the population left). But Europe isn’t very well off either, not being able to find a common ground to handle the crisis.

Will Europe and the US be able to tackle the challenges of migration and make a positive issue out of it in order to get the best out of the migrants helping creativity, employment and growth? This could be a way to successfully implement the new Europe 2020 strategy of the European Commission, which until now just seems to be a declaration of intent. Or will fear of migration lead to the stagnation of Western democracies?

Legal status for climate refugees

Furthermore, as the COP 16 Cancún conference finished with very modest results, a new question arises which will probably be relevant in the next 20 years. Should Western countries recognise the legal status of climate refugee? Because of the economic crisis, some countries are still reluctant to make some effort against global warming. This “no policy” attitude will lead to the worsening of global warming and increase of climate refugees. Recognizing climate refugees won’t be an easy step. Prof. Felicitas Hillmann of the University of Bremen said, “that the crucial point of the current debate on climate change and migration is about the definition of whom might be identified as a ‘climate migrant’. Because the aknowledgement of a person as a climate refugee would imply allowing her or him rights according to the Geneva convention. This makes the discussion complicated and, for some people, would mean opening a Pandora’s box.”

In the next decades, Europe will have to be able to find an efficient way to attract highly qualified foreigners. They need to have sound knowledge on how to manage their integration, but also need to find a way of handling the rising number of climate refugees. The best solution seems to lie in acting strongly against global warming now, so that no refugee results of climate change. Easier said than done.

Further reading and more info:

Migration and Immigrants Two Years after the Financial Collapse: Where Do We Stand? A report from the Migration Policy Institute.

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Craig James Willy Twitter: craigjameswillyCraig James

I am a Brussels-based European politics blogger and a journalist for the multinational EU news site EurActiv, covering a wide range of policy areas. I was born and raised in France but brought up by Anglo-American parents. I studied at Liverpool and the London School of Economics and have worked in both the US Congress and the European Parliament. I am currently involved in numerous online news and social media projects including Future Challenges, the EU blog aggregator and my own personal European affairs blog Letters from Europe. My interests include reading, writing, history, politics, old and new media, European affairs, transatlantic relations, US and French politics, European Muslims, migration and minority rights, beer, traveling, dogs and dinosaurs. I speak English, French, Spanish and Italian (in that order) and love to meet people in person and across the net. Don't hesitate to contact me if you want to discuss projects, collaboration on blogs (guest posts, retakes..), writing for your publication or want advice on EU affairs, social media or life in Europe and Brussels!