What Europe Has Done Right for Migrants

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- By any measure, the European Union’s handling of a vast influx of migrants from Africa and the Middle East has been a debacle. The fragmented response, in which member states have pursued divergent policies and refused to support one another, has undermined human rights, endangered lives and helped fuel a nationalist backlash.

That said, for all their differences, some countries’ policies offer insights into how a better approach might look.

The fate of people seeking to escape war and privation depends far too much on where they wash ashore. The EU has no common asylum policy, leaving it largely to the country of first entry. This places a disproportionate burden on Mediterranean nations such as Italy, where high search and rescue costs have engendered popular discontent. Many member states, particularly in Eastern Europe, have balked at accepting their fair share, and the EU offers little aid in integrating migrants into the labor forces of those countries that welcome the most. Only 2.6 percent of the EU budget goes to managing migration and security.

The result is a chaos of uncoordinated policies, perverse incentives and cross-border enmity — the very antithesis of what the European project was supposed to achieve. Yet leaving countries to their own devices also has one advantage: It allows everyone to see what works and what doesn’t. Politicians who want to improve their countries’ immigration management — or that of the EU as a whole — need only emulate the best practices among member states.

Consider the handling of asylum claims, one of the most contentious issues facing Europe. Speedy and fair hearings are essential to ensuring that those who deserve refugee status can quickly become productive members of society, while those who don’t can be repatriated quickly.

Italy and the Netherlands demonstrate two antipodal approaches. The European Stability Initiative, a think tank, estimates that a person applying for asylum in Italy in early 2018 was likely to wait at least two years until a first instance decision, and a further two years until a first appeal decision. At the end of 2017, there were more than 150,000 pending asylum applications. In the special asylum chamber in Florence, not one of the appeals lodged in 2017 or 2018 is expected to be addressed by the end of this year.

By contrast, the Netherlands seeks to provide asylum seekers a first-instance decision in 17 days, and an appeal decision within a further 35 days at the most. Most asylum claims are decided in less than two months (though recent reports suggest that the timeline has been getting longer). Those who are refused must depart within 28 days.

Italy’s drawn-out process doesn’t appear to protect the rights of refugees any better than the Netherlands’ does. On the contrary, the Dutch government provides asylum seekers with lawyers and allows them to make their cases in at least two interviews. In Italy, a large backlog inevitably complicates the task of reaching a quality assessment. Refugees remain in a sort of purgatory, with little knowledge of what will come next and no ability to make plans.

Helping migrants find work is another big challenge. They are only 62 percent as likely to be employed as the average European, according to a study by the EU and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Even those with advanced degrees have a harder time landing high-skilled jobs. Integrating them into the labor force isn’t cheap: It requires language and other training. But as a recent paper by the European Commission has shown, such investments can boost growth and, crucially, pay for themselves in the long run.

Incentives matter, too — as the experience of Denmark and Germany in the 1990s and 2000s demonstrates. In Denmark, the unemployment-insurance system provided generous wage-replacement payments that lasted for an extended period, leaving recipients with little motivation to join the labor force. Germany, by contrast, calculated benefits based on an individual’s occupational history. Migrants were eligible for only a brief period, giving them ample impetus to get a job.

The German approach has proven more fiscally advantageous, according to a study by Holger Hinte and Klaus Zimmermann of the IZA research center. They estimate that migrants, by working and paying taxes, contributed on net an average of 35,500 euros to the government budget over their lifespan. This was much better than the average native-born German, who extracted a net 14,000 euros. In Denmark, the opposite was true: Migrants received net transfer payments amounting to 93,300 euros, while native Danes contributed net tax payments of 16,600 euros.

Ultimately, the EU needs a coordinated strategy for handling migrants. In the meantime, there’s a lot that member states can learn from their neighbors.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ferdinando Giugliano writes columns and editorials on European economics for Bloomberg Opinion. He is also an economics columnist for La Repubblica and was a member of the editorial board of the Financial Times.

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