Refugees: Why European protectionism in the face of the refugee crisis is not only morally reprehensible but economically ill-advised


Early September in Munich, hundreds of mostly Syrian refugees arrived at the central train station cheered and welcomed by Bavarians on all sides. Images showed an instant of sincerity and humanity: timidity, hope, and fear on the faces of the arriving children, women, and men. These images went around the world, they touched our hearts for a moment. Then we forgot them and so did our governments.

Instead, politicians started up again about fences, border protection, and social saturation. Protectionism is in full vogue; demagoguery has become a well-liked sport. We call public figures who engage with these kinds of notions populists and we do that for a reason. The Orbáns, Camerons, Seehofers, and Rasmussens of the world are convinced that the bar-room clichés they invoke will resonate with a large chunk of their citizens, and they do not appear to be mistaken. Right-wing tendencies are on the rise all across the European continent. Even in Germany, my homeland, lately hailed for its political position on immigration, the political mood seems to be turning. It has in fact never been as rosy as portrayed. Chancellor Merkel – “Mutti” as Germans half endearingly, half mockingly call her in her role as a virtually unalterable leader of a hitherto uninspired nation – has significantly lost public support as a consequence of her lenient stance on immigration control. Her aura of inalterability has become quite alterable indeed. Not only do most other European states forego an enormous opportunity in the face of the refugee crisis, let alone appear to be cognizant of its existence, their electorates seem to compel them to.

This form of protectionism is a grave moral tragedy, but it is also economically short-sighted. One does not have to invoke an inner homo reciprocans to acknowledge the value of mass migration in times of an ageing population and a shortage of skilled labour. The entire Western welfare state depends on a social contract between young and old. Yet, in times of declining birth rates and an ever increasing life expectancy, the age pyramid that once provided a solid foundation for that intergenerational contract has drastically changed. We all know that. Yet, we tend to ignore the obvious implications of this. Governments will either be forced to support transfer benefits with greater subsidies and burden their fiscal balance or slowly but steadily dismantle the social welfare system. They will cut down on pensions and erode health care as they summon the neoliberal spectre of “personal responsibility”.

In most European countries the latter trend has already manifested itself. After all, were it not for immigration the German population would decline by 200,000 each year. An exogenous consolidation of our demographic distribution is therefore imperative if we want to retain the social security that we pride ourselves on and that alleviates – albeit marginally – the social brutality of class and wealth. The magnitude of short-term investments in efficient administration, initial benefits and integration measures does not even begin to compare to the potential opportunity costs of building walls around European territory, not to mention the fact that fortifying borders in such ridiculously anachronistic fashion is only prudent in a Trumpian dystopia.

The graying of Europe has also caused a significant shortage of skilled labour. In 2015, more than half a million positions remained unfilled in Germany’s labour market. Britain has a shortfall of about 55,000 workers in engineering alone.

Europe desperately needs to replenish its ageing workforce to keep aspiring to the tenets of global capitalism that are growth and competitiveness. As it happens, the men and women knocking at our doors are not only relatively well educated but, more importantly, young. More than half of Syrian migrants are children below the age of 18, and only one in five is older than 45. And I do not think that I am going out on a limb to say that human beings who have fled death and destruction are particularly motivated to find purpose, personal gratification and a sense of long-forgotten normality in work and in the social and economic appreciation they deserve for it.

Across the board, research has indeed suggested considerable positive impacts of immigration on a country’s economic performance. Immigration does not depress national wages, and any fiscal burden is only short-term. Migrants in the UK have more than “paid their debt”; they contribute tremendously to fiscal stability and are less likely than native Brits to rely on benefits, a recent UCL study has shown. The Center for European Economic Research found that in 2012, immigrants living in Germany contributed €22 billion more in taxes than they were allotted in allowances. In light of this, we as a society, as a polity, as the collective body that is supposed to drive political action need to realise that the medium and long-term benefits of welcoming and training migrants outweigh by far any necessary short-term costs. We need to realise that we are all to gain from it, culturally, socially and economically. When we take in refugees, treat them like humans, allow them to work, empower them to thrive and not pen them up like cattle or leave them out in the cold altogether, we are not only acting as Good Samaritans (as if we ever really did that, anyway), but also building a workforce for the future, an investment from which we will reap the harvest of fiscal and socio-economic consolidation.

As much as I wish that a normative case for an open and welcoming Europe would suffice to change minds and policy, the neo-liberal homo economicus that has come to permeate most spheres of our societal and political decision-making processes has proven quite inaccessible to arguments of moral responsibility, historical and socio-economic guilt or humanist notions of diversity, pluralism and kindness. This is reminiscent of climate change, an issue deemed hardly exigent enough on the face of its vast implications for human well-being to draw the leaders of the “free world” from the woodwork. Instead, calculations of potential economic damage and the prospect of a greatly diminished variety of holiday destinations appear to be the primary incentives for changes in environmental policy.

In the same vein, even if we cannot bring ourselves to treat refugees as human beings because normative deliberations require us to do so, maybe we can at least bestow upon them the detached, self-seeking economic rationality that we have so profoundly cultivated in our “morally superior” free market democracies. Even if we may have forgotten to value people for their very human nature alone, maybe we can find a way to appreciate them as an urgently needed human resource for consolidation and growth. As much as I would like to argue outside of the system and critically reflect on its parameters, arguments can very well be made from within it in order to arrive at the conclusion that we should open our borders and our economies and we should open them wide. All these humans knocking on our doors, fleeing civilizational disruption on an unimaginable scale, will be grateful to us, and so will we to them.

Image credit: Defense Visual Information Center