Monday 10 December 2018

The world is on the move, but Europe can't afford to become a fortress by slamming its doors shut

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Migrants wait to be rescued in the Mediterranean Sea off the Libyan coast last summer. Opposite page, an unidentified migrant carrying his luggage at a makeshift in northern France. Photo: Getty Images
Migrants wait to be rescued in the Mediterranean Sea off the Libyan coast last summer. Opposite page, an unidentified migrant carrying his luggage at a makeshift in northern France. Photo: Getty Images

Mary Fitzgerald

We are living in a century constantly shaped by the vast numbers of people on the move across the globe.

It is one defined by human mobility. More than 244 million people currently live outside their country of birth, a number that includes more than 65 million forcibly displaced by war, persecution and natural disasters and others who migrate for the promise of a better life.

Those numbers are not going away, in fact they are expected to increase - and dramatically so.

The ravages of climate change, for example, are predicted to produce a billion refugees by the middle of this century, and possibly two billion by its close. The public conversation on migration in Europe - so influenced by the toxic messaging of populists and xenophobes - often fails to include the bigger picture of what is driving this mass movement of people internationally and how it may evolve in future.

In a recent interview with Canada's CBC, Canadian lawyer François Crépeau - who spent six years as the UN's leading investigator and expert on the human rights of migrants - delved into that bigger picture.

"Migration is part of humankind… We are a migrating animal species. The numbers are high today, but they represent on average 3pc of the world population. We're told by anthropologists and sociologists that this was the proportion 50 years ago, and this was the proportion 100 years ago.

"[Migration] is the constant of who we are," he says. "Refugees are a kind of migrant. But there are many other people who do not fear persecution or who fear many other things: people who are fleeing drought, tsunamis, poverty. These are good reasons to try to move somewhere else.

"This is a social stress, and migration has always been a human answer to social stress.

"It's going to continue, and we have to adapt to that rather than try to refuse it."

Mr Crépeau argues that an approach like that of the 'Fortress Europe' mindset is not only misguided, it also feeds criminal networks involved in trafficking: "If you try to stop everyone you don't like, the only thing you do is you create underground markets for smugglers."

And he highlights what is often missing from the conversation on migration in Europe.

"Migrations occur because of push and pull factors.

"We very often discuss the push factors - environmental catastrophes, violence, war, economic deprivation.

"We never talk about the pull factors.

"The main pull factor for countries in the global north is that we have huge labour markets that need those migrants."

Similar arguments have been made by Dimitris Avramopoulos, European commissioner for migration, home affairs and citizenship, in calling for a conversation about migration that goes beyond crisis management or the poisonous politics of the populists and acknowledges this as Europe's new reality.

He wrote last month: "It is foolish to think that migration will disappear if one adopts harsh language.

"It is naïve to think that our societies will remain homogeneous and migration-free if one erects fences.

"It is unwise to think that migration will remain on the other side of the Mediterranean, if one only shows solidarity in financial terms.

"We must start to be honest with those citizens who are concerned about how we will manage migration.

"We may not be able to stop migration. But we can be better, smarter and more proactive at managing this phenomenon.

"However, we cannot achieve this if we don't accept a change in attitude and a change in our narrative."

Mr Avramopoulos notes that this is also an economic and social necessity given the continent's demographic trends.

Europe's ageing is so dramatic that by the middle of this century, the ratio of working age people to every pensioner will have halved from four today to just two.

Last year, Eurostat estimated that only Ireland, France, Norway and Britain were experiencing birthrates that would see their populations expand by 2050 without migration.

In contrast, Germany and Italy would face declines of 18pc and 16pc respectively without migration.

The prospect of a shrunken European workforce - on top of a pension and social security infrastructure already under severe strain - poses huge challenges yet politicians rarely mention these realities when it comes to the debate on migration, a debate that remains short-sighted and too beholden to fears of the surge in populism.

But that needs to change if Europe is to develop forward-looking migration policies in a sustainable way.

One place to start would be improving legal channels to allow for regulated migration to Europe.

Another would be explaining the economic imperative of that to citizens.

For all the political sensitivities the question of migration has triggered in Europe in recent years, when it boils down to demographics the continent needs more migrants to remain afloat.

Irish Independent

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