Europe and the U.S. Could Make Migration Manageable

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As the global number of asylum seekers continues to increase, migration is now a political lightning rod on both sides of the Atlantic. And yet politicians don’t seem interested in solving the problem so much as wielding it against opponents.

According to a new European Union report on the asylum situation, 954,000 asylum applicants were awaiting decisions in Europe at the end of 2017, 16 percent fewer than a year earlier. Fewer new applications were lodged, and more of them were rejected as the share of people arriving from war zones and genuinely violent countries has gone down.

That’s not the whole story, though. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ Global Trends report, published on Tuesday, the total number of asylum seekers awaiting a decision hit 3.1 million last year, compared with 2.8 million in 2016. About half of the claims had been filed in developing regions, not the rich countries of Europe and North America.

Right-wing politicians in the rich world want to keep it that way: Let the people go elsewhere, as long as they don’t come here. This stance underlies the recently intensified conflict between Bavaria’s Christian Social Union and its national-level ally, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. It won recent elections for Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kern. And Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban wants it to become the mainstream policy for all European center-right.

“We believe that the time has come for a Christian democratic renaissance, not an anti-populist people’s front,” Orban said in a June 16 speech. According to Orban, fighting off new anti-immigrant parties only throws a lifeline to the declining left; adopting some of their ideas, on the other hand, would strengthen the center-right.

Orban made that speech immediately after a conversation with U.S. President Donald Trump, in which, according to the Hungarian leader, the two discussed “the difference between a ‘beautiful wall’ and a ‘beautiful fence.’” Trump is doing to the Republican Party what the European opportunists are doing to their center-right forces: giving those fleeing hardship a good reason to think twice. 

Of course, focusing on deterrence means nobody is searching for practical, technical solutions to the displacement and migration problem, which isn’t going away no matter how high the walls. Developing economies soon won’t be able to process the increasing migrant flows as the rich world battens down the hatches. There potentially will be more crises like the 2015-2016 one in Europe, which overwhelmed one transit nation after another.

Obviously, letting in pretty much everyone on humanitarian grounds, as activist groups such as Amnesty International suggest, isn’t a viable solution — for practical reasons as well as political ones. Societies don’t need more permanent welfare recipients, and they can’t just throw open their borders to all comers, giving up all attempts at predicting the economic effect.

Nor will well-intentioned half-measures achieve much. The Obama-era practice of detaining and kicking out families together looks better than Trump’s family separation policy, but it, too, just returned them to violence and extreme hardship.

In 2017, Germany spent 20.8 billion euros ($24 billion) on refugee-related issues, 6.75 billion euros of it on “fighting the causes of flight” — essentially, aid to countries of origin or nations willing to keep the refugees from trying to come to Europe. That aid, however, doesn’t solve the problem either, because quite a few nations in Africa and the Middle East are more interested in taking the money than in helping the potential migrants. Essentially, these are pay-offs to less than democratic and not particularly humanitarian-minded governments for doing Germany’s (and Europe’s) dirty work.

Any viable solution would require a change in rich countries’ approach to migration. Many migrants can’t prove that they’re escaping violent situations or that they are unable to live elsewhere within their countries of origin — conditions necessary to be entitled to protected status under the 1951 Refugee Convention. This has created a whole legal industry around asylum appeals and rendered countries unable to deport hundreds of thousands of failed asylum seekers using the courts to stall as they try to find a way to stay. 

The dishonesty built into the system is a major cause of the political backlash: Immigrants are often blamed for trying to obtain benefits to which they have no right or overstaying their welcome.

Ideally, the EU and the U.S. should sort people who show up at their doorsteps into two streams: Those who really want refugee status and its benefits, and those who realize their chances of being recognized as refugees are low, but who will agree to be trained and directed toward the huge backlogs of job vacancies many rich countries can’t fill. 

The U.S. has 6.7 million of such jobs and about 6.1 million people looking for work who, for some reason, don’t want these jobs or cannot be matched to them. The unfilled vacancies include 235,000 in construction, 421,000 in manufacturing and 844,000 in accommodation and food services. Many of them don’t require a college education or much professional training; setting up mandatory training programs for immigrants who want to take this route rather than the asylum one wouldn’t be cheap, but it would ultimately boost the economy. People whose asylum claims are rejected could also be given a choice between going into these programs and deportation. Anyone who fails exams, refuses a vacancy to which he or she has been matched or commits a crime would have to leave the country.

European countries, too, have to deal with millions of unfilled vacancies. Germany had 1.2 million at the end of the first quarter. They couldn’t be matched to the 2.5 million locals officially looking for work. Training programs available both to immigrants and to locals, if they want them, would help resolve an issue that some researchers have estimated may cost the German economy 630 billion euros in lost revenue by 2030.

Matching immigrant flows with the vacancies and the training programs that lead to them is not a trivial task — even basic language skills required for simple jobs take time to learn — but it’s made possible by modern data technology. All that’s needed to start the process is political will. That, unfortunately, is increasingly lacking as the knee-jerk reaction of pushing newcomers back grows more politically lucrative.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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