The world’s institutional approach to refugees was born in Europe seven decades ago. The continent must relearn its lessons
IN 1951 a group of diplomats in Geneva committed their countries to absorbing huge numbers of refugees from a region plagued by ethnic hatred, fanatical ideologies, and seemingly interminable war: Europe. The second world war left millions of people wandering across the ravaged continent. Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union deported 14m Germans in the years after Germany’s defeat. Redrawn borders saw millions of Ukrainians, Serbs and others kicked out of their homes. Six years on, 400,000 people were stranded in “displaced persons” camps with no clear prospect of resettlement.
In early September a new mood of welcome for these refugees sprang up in western European countries, and especially in Germany. But central and eastern Europe have not joined in the enthusiasm. Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, has turned into a bête noire for liberal Europeans, putting up barbed wire and walls against refugees and treating those who get in like cattle, appearing insensitive to associations with Nazi concentration camps or East Germans fleeing across Hungarian barbed wire 26 years ago. A poll this month in the Czech Republic showed 71% of the population opposed to taking in any refugees at all.
Slovakia has made it known that, if it must have refugees at all, it would rather not have Muslims, a sentiment echoed by right-wing politicians across the continent happy to play on animosity towards Muslims and fears that Europe is incapable of absorbing them. The migrants are looking for European social benefits, the populists say, not fleeing persecution. The Netherlands’ Geert Wilders calls them gelukszoekers (“happiness-seekers”), while Mr Orban says the “overwhelming majority” are economic migrants. After all, the argument runs, those fleeing Syria mostly cross into Greece from Turkey, where they face no physical threats. Surely that means they are not real refugees?
Wrong. For one thing, a quirk of history means that though Turkey has signed the convention, it does not grant Syrians the right to stay there as refugees. It is the only country that, when ratifying the 1967 protocol to the convention, retained the original geographical limitations. Thus the convention only obliges Turkey to deal with asylum applications from Europeans. More generally, state signatories to the convention are obliged to let those who have applied for asylum stay while their applications are evaluated, whether they have arrived via other countries where they might not face persecution or not. Soviet Jews who requested asylum in America in the 1970s were not rejected simply because they had first passed through Austria.
There are exceptions. The European Union’s Dublin rule says that people applying for asylum in an EU country other than the one they first entered should be returned to that first country. And international law permits applicants to be sent to “safe” countries that afford equivalent opportunities for asylum. But this does not mean they can be returned to the Middle East—where most of Syria’s refugees remain (see chart 2). Neither Lebanon nor Jordan is a signatory to the convention, and though both have taken in far more refugees than Europe, the situation in both is now far from welcoming.
Over the past year Lebanon has put into place tortuous rules that require its 1.5m Syrians either to pledge not to work or to find Lebanese sponsors—which often means getting exploited as unpaid labour. Jordan, with 629,000 refugees living mainly among local communities, has been ramping up restrictions that seem aimed at squeezing them into camps or forcing them to leave. Lacking the convention’s protections, most Syrians in Jordan, Lebabon and Turkey are unable to work legally, and live in dire poverty. The World Food Programme has halved its assistance to the neediest Syrian refugees, providing just $13.50 per person per month. In Turkey, Kurdish Syrian refugees are vulnerable to the government’s renewed war against its own Kurds. Arrivals in Europe have rocketed this year not so much because the civil war is worse than ever—though it is (see article)—as because the situation in the countries neighbouring their homeland has grown desperate.
For all this, some reluctant Europeans continue to be certain the new arrivals are not “real” refugees. If so something is gravely wrong with EU asylum authorities, which are convinced that most of the applications they are seeing are genuine. European countries grant asylum to 94% of Syrian migrants who ask for it, along with the vast majority of Eritreans, Afghans and Iraqis (see chart 3).
This is not to say there are no economic migrants trying to get into the EU. Most applications for asylum from Serbia, Albania and Kosovo are rejected. Many sub-Saharan Africans who make it across the Mediterranean to Italy and Malta do not try to show that they are persecuted, hoping instead to make their way undocumented. As a prosperous continent next door to much poorer places, Europe can expect ever more such migration over the years and decades to come. But that does not mean that it can ignore the growing flux of refugees who have a claim to protection under the convention.
When the fear that few of the migrants will qualify as refugees proves unfounded, it is likely to be followed by a fear that too many of them will—especially now that Germany has put out the welcome mat. There are 4m Syrian refugees outside Syria. Even if they all came to the EU they would amount to a small demographic change in a club of more than 500m people—if evenly spread. Under the Dublin rule Greece and Italy have handled a share of asylum-seekers they see as deeply unfair, but Germany has already put those rules to one side as far as Syrians are concerned, and the rest of the EU is working on a quota system to make the distribution more even (see article). Yet on a continent where, for a decade and a half, politicians have been preoccupied with the failure to integrate Muslim communities—and where that failure has boosted the likes of Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France and Mr Wilders’s Party for Freedom—the prospect of more such communities worries many.
How easily Europe can absorb more Muslims depends largely on how the absorbing is done. To appease anxieties over costs and crime governments often restrict asylum applicants’ work permits and house them in isolated refugee centres. This is the most expensive and least effective approach possible. Putting asylum-seekers into government-run centres is not only alienating, it also costs a lot more than housing in the community—about €100 a day per person, according to a British study. Letting asylum-seekers work—if, in areas of chronic unemployment, they can find jobs—replaces the costs of government relief, and leads them to learn the local language much faster. That said, letting them work has costs that are not evenly shared. German studies of the labour effects of immigration suggest that while it raises the incomes of better off workers with complementary skills, it does some harm to those who already have low wages.
Success also depends on who does the absorbing. European nation-states have been coping with acute refugee flows at least since the Protestant exoduses of the Thirty Years’ War—that is, for as long as there have been European nation-states. But the immigrant nations of the Americas and Australia have tended to do a better job, and any resolution of the Syrian crisis should probably involve them as well.
One model might be the Vietnamese “boat people” crisis that started in the late 1970s and unfolded in much the same way the Syrian diaspora has. Initial uncontrolled emigration led to resistance from neighbouring countries and tragic drownings that mobilised public opinion in the West. So the international community set up camps for processing and distributing asylum applicants. Some were repatriated, while deals with Vietnam let others leave legally. Some 1.3m refugees from Indochina ended up in America; many others went to Australia, Canada and France, and some to other parts of Europe.
The boat people had fewer skills than the refugees who had first fled the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, and less ideological identification with the West. In Australia they became the first large group of Asian immigrants in an overwhelmingly white colonial population sensitive to preserving its ethnic identity. Yet today the boat people are for the most part a success everywhere they ended up. Vietnamese-Americans have lower levels of educational attainment and English proficiency than the average American immigrant, but higher income levels and naturalisation rates.
If an analogy between Vietnam’s boat people and Syria’s migrants seems glib, it is because of a widespread sense in Western countries that Muslims are more threatening than other immigrants. The fear is not just of Muslims’ cultural differences, but of the development of anti-Western political sentiment in Muslim communities. Islamist terrorist attacks in Europe this year have intensified such anxieties.
But every wave of immigration has been accompanied by fears. In 1709 the War of the Spanish Succession sent thousands of refugees from lower Saxony down the Rhine and across the North Sea to London. Believing that they would then be offered free passage to America, the so-called “Poor Palatines” instead ended up in refugee camps. Daniel Defoe and other Whigs argued that they were Protestant refugees from Roman Catholic oppression and should be settled in England—an argument that suffered a blow when, on closer inspection, half the Palatines turned out to be Catholic themselves. A Tory faction meanwhile argued that they were economic migrants, low-skilled undesirables who would prove an endless burden on the Crown. Ultimately, investors were found to put some of them on boats to America, where they founded Germantown, New York.
America itself, though often welcoming, has also had its periods of doubt. The millions from southern and eastern Europe who arrived at the end of the 19th century provoked fears that the “English-speaking race” could not withstand such pollution. After 1945 America refused for years to accept any refugees from eastern Europe: Senator Chapman Revercomb of West Virginia warned it would be “a tragic blunder to bring into our midst those imbued with a communistic line of thought”. These fears, like those over Islamist terrorism today, were not baseless. In the 19th century some eastern European immigrants in Western countries engaged in anarchist terrorism; in the 20th some spied for the Soviet Union. But these were not, in the end, huge problems.
In one respect, though, today’s refugees and migrants truly are different from those of earlier eras. Many have some higher education, material resources and networks of family or friends already in Europe with whom they can keep in touch through phone and Facebook. Some are working out their plans as they go, others have coherent strategies. In a word, they have agency.
On September 6th, at the railway station of the small Austrian village of Nickelsdorf, Waleed al-Ubaid stood waiting to catch a train towards the German city of Kiel. He had researched it on his phone: “So many Syrians are going now to Munich and Berlin. It’s better to go where there aren’t too many.” Nearby on the platform Hussein Serif plans to find a job in Germany, then apply for a scholarship at the French business school, INSEAD (he had just finished a marketing degree when, at risk of being drafted, he left Damascus).
Millions of Mr Serif’s compatriots are still waiting in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, gradually despairing of their prospects there. They are aware of their rights under the convention; they know of the successes and failures of their friends and family through social media. Many of them will probably be coming west soon. Europe has the capacity to welcome them; at the moment, in many places, it has the inclination to do so, too. The challenge is to turn that warm and decent impulse into a programme that will make the newcomers safe, productive and accepted.