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The West is shirking its responsibility to refugees and missing out

The recent Amnesty International reports on which countries take the most refugees is somehow both shocking yet totally predictable at the same time. What is most shocking about it is the sheer scale of the crisis and how a few of the worlds' poorest countries are taking on the brunt of the burden. What is predictable is how most of the world's richest countries have eagerly sidestepped their responsibilities and avoided taking refugees.

The statistics are stark: while Jordan hosts more than 65,000 refugees from Syria (and 2.5 million refugees overall), the UK takes less than 8,000 and the US has issued a goal of accepting only 10,000.

These statistics are shocking in their own right. But when put in to the context of the fractious, anti-immigrant political discourse which is evident in the UK, US and across much of Western Europe, the true depth of this absurdity becomes more clear.

Wrongheaded reactions

Britain has quite clearly shot itself in the foot by voting to leave the European Union based, largely, on a nationalist, anti-immigrant platform promoted by UKIP and the right wing of the Tory party. The US has elevated the monstrous Donald Trump who espouses absurdly racist talking points – and who is only suffering defections from his campaign now based on his aggressive sexual proclivities, despite months of articulating various other forms of bigotry – and the picture is far from bright across the rest of Western Europe.

In France, the forthcoming election is likely to be dominated by anti-immigrant sentiment, pitting the National Front's Marine Le Pen against an inept socialist ticket and – it seems likely – a resurgent Nicolas Sarkozy who embraces Burka bans and is apparently keener on aping the far right than confronting them.

In the Netherlands too – once the bastion of European Liberalism – pre-election polling has been dominated by the neo-fascist Freedom party, headed by Geert Wilders, which offers supporters a platform of banning the Quran and closing mosques.
And of course there are numerous examples of similar anti-immigrant sentiment from governments already in power particularly across the East of the continent.

These include Hungary – where Prime Minister Viktor Orban rejects EU refugee quotas and has built a razor wire fence on the border with Croatia – and the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which broadly share the same view as Orban.

Public opinion also reflects this hostility. According to a Pew study, across Europe: on average 49 per cent believe that refugees from Iraq and Syria are a threat to their country; 59 per cent tie refugees to an increased likelihood of terrorism; and 43 per cent view Muslims unfavourably.

Against our own national interests

There is obviously a wide range of arguments that can be made against this prevailing anti-immigration sentiment. A solid starting point is that of "myth-busting" the rhetoric articulated against migration. A 2015 article in the Independent articulated this eloquently by outlining 10 commonly accepted falsehoods about migration to the UK.

In summary these points boil down to the following key ideas:

  • Migration is not only necessary, but essential for economic growth.
  • Evidence suggests that the influx of migrant labour to the UK has not had a deleterious effect on wages or employment levels.
  • Most migrants in the UK are there legally and most integrate into society – e.g. through learning English and working.
  • There are far fewer migrants in the UK than most people think and migrants are less associated with negative social phenomenon than how they are usually represented.

So – simply put – migration is usually a boon to the UK economically, culturally and socially and the country would be a poorer place with fewer migrants.

Refugees

But there is more to the issue than that, especially when it comes to refugees. Not only is there an obvious moral imperative for stable, rich countries to offer assistance to people who are in need, but there are self-interested motivations too.

Refugees have, historically, contributed enormously to their host countries, bringing new skills, ideas and hard work to their adopted home. For example, when Canada welcomed 60,000 "boat people" from Southeast Asia during the US-led wars in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

Within a decade, 86 per cent of those former refugees were working, healthy and spoke English with some proficiency… They were less likely to use social services and more likely to have jobs than the average Canadian. One in five was self-employed. They weren't a drain on the taxpayer – they were taxpayers.

Moreover a study by the Tent Foundation argues that young refugees are even more beneficial to the receiving countries:

Younger refugees are of particular benefit to ageing societies, especially those with shrinking local working-age population … They complement older, more experienced workers, can help care and pay for the swelling ranks of pensioners and can help support population numbers, thus spurring investment and growth.

Of course there is always the chance that, by welcoming refugees to your home country, you might well be welcoming someone like Albert Einstein – who fled the Nazis to the US – or Thabo Mbeki – who escaped Zimbabwe for South Africa, and went on to succeed Nelson Mandela as president.

Sensible people in the world's rich countries need to shake loose from anti-immigrant propaganda and demand their governments do more, not just for the sake of helping people in need, but to help themselves in the long term too!

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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