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Social Impact of Migration Must Be a Topic of Policy, Not Fear

As part of our “This Age of Migration” commentary series, analyst Paul Currion discusses growing concerns among Europeans about the social impact of migration, and calls for prioritizing constructive policy discussions over fearmongering.

Written by Paul Currion Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Denmark immigration
Muslim women walk in a park in Aarhus, Denmark. In an interview published on July 28, 2016, an anti-immigration and nationalist group that supports the center-right government told the Berlingske newspaper that Muslim migrants should be barred from entering Denmark for four to six years.Finn Frandsen/ AP via POLFOTO, file

“Out of every 100 people in your country, about how many do you think are Muslim?” research group Ipsos Mori asked people in several European countries last year. Most Europeans consistently overestimated that figure by around 10 percent.

Popular opinion is barely on speaking terms with reality these days.

This January, Chatham House asked “What do Europeans think about Muslim immigration?” and found that “an average of 55 percent agreed that all further migration from mainly Muslim countries should be stopped.”

Popular opinion also does not let ignorance get in the way of a good poll. It is clear that misinformed publics result in support for misguided policies.

It would be easy to dismiss this fear of “Muslims” – all Muslims everywhere – as casual racism. Of course, racism plays a part. Yet xenophobia is not always racism, and is not always without reason, even if that reason is hard to encapsulate in a hastily worded tweet from the White House. Whether we like it or not, mass migration has exacerbated concerns among many European natives that their culture is under threat.

I found it difficult to write that last line. Neither the word “natives” nor the idea of a “culture” under threat sits easily with me. Yet they mean something to a large number of Europeans, and so we must take them seriously. But what is not clear to me is what taking them seriously entails.

This discussion is of course wider than just refugees. Like me, you might be mystified by the meme of Schrodinger’s immigrant, who steals native jobs while also living off welfare. You might point to the evidence that shows that migrants, in general, have a net positive effect on the host economy and that “refugee invasions” may in fact boost the economy.

Yet even if people believe the economic arguments – which in the wake of the financial crisis, many Europeans do not – this isn’t their primary concern. Discussions about competition for scarce jobs, or increased strain on schools and hospitals, needs to be understood as coded language. They often allude to deeper concerns that are often not explicitly articulated because they draw accusations of racism.

Refugees are collateral damage in a debate driven by these fears about the social impact of immigration. While that damage to refugees is real, the social impact is equally real; the fears themselves are evidence of social impact.

Anybody who has worked in situations of mass displacement recognizes that the argument that refugees can be an asset, while true in some cases, is weak in others. One of the strongest arguments in favor of Europe accepting more refugees is the negative impact that millions of Syrian refugees are having on Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

If we wish to make that argument, however, we must also accept that those same refugees will have both a short- and long-term impact on European countries. While economic arguments in favor of accepting refugees are relatively solid, the non-economic impacts of refugees are less easily measured, and the evidence – positive and negative – is limited.

Political scientist Robert D. Putnam has claimed that in the short run immigration and ethnic diversity tend to reduce social solidarity and social capital. Economist Garett Jones argues that the long-term effect of immigrants on national culture is substantial, although that argument is piecemeal. While it’s clear that we need more research, the pace of migration has outpaced academia research by leaps and bounds.

This leaves the field open for the far right to argue that Muslim refugees are unacceptable because “their” culture is incompatible with “our” culture. It should be clear from the scare quotes that I am not convinced by this argument – particularly since a lack of “close cultural ties” is not an argument against accepting refugees. But, we also we cannot ignore peoples’ fears just because they are inconvenient.

What we have done so far is left little space for sensible policy discussions, and plenty for further scaremongering. Let’s take the claims of the imminent collapse of Sweden as an example. In terms of crime, Malmo may be no worse than other European cities, but it is worse than other Swedish cities. Assuming that immigration has nothing to do with the rise of crime means that we will inevitably fail to address both the needs of already marginalized communities and the fears of host communities.

There is no serious dispute that Europe can benefit from immigration to compensate for its aging population, in order to have a balanced demography. But it is also not controversial to say that countries are not just the borders that surround them but the cultures that produced them. While Europeans may not want the slow death of their countries through demographic transition, they may see rapid, large-scale immigration as a quick death of their cultures.

Those of us who support a more open approach to refugees usually also promote a more open approach to immigration. We therefore need to have a reasonable response to this fear. That response has to start by acknowledging that population movements do affect culture, of both native and migrant populations. But the discussion cannot end there.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

“This Age of Migration” is our commentary series that reflects on some of the currents running beneath the crisis, from border fences and biometrics to the role of innovation and the rhetoric of invasion.

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