It is heartbreaking watching the stream of refugees fleeing the war in Syria on TV. It has awakened in me [Sylvain Ehrenfeld] the memory of being a refugee coming to the US from Belgium a few months before the Germans invaded and how my emigration saved me from being a candidate for extermination.
This crisis in Europe has promoted and provoked a range of responses, from Germany’s decision to accept many refugees to the anti-immigration attitude in Hungary prompting it to seal its borders.
Statistical Peak in Refugee Numbers
The crisis has been going on for years. Attention is focused on Europe. Yet, most of the Syrian refugees have been taken in not by Western countries but by Syria’s neighboring states: Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Lebanon has about one million, Jordan 630,000 and Turkey two million. The refugees mostly live in camps. The capacity of these countries have been overwhelmed. This situation has been written about but not covered as dramatically as the situation in Europe. WHY?
The recent Annual Global Trends Report by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) states that the worldwide displacement is at an all time high. The number of forcibly displaced at the end of 2014 (and maybe more now) was a staggering 60 million, of which half are children. The report indicates the flow of refugees results from 15 conflicts: eight in Africa (primarily, Libya, Mali, and South Sudan), three in the Middle East (Syria, Iraq and Yemen), one in Europe (Ukraine) and three in Asia. The worst currently is Syria.
Refugees Through History
Throughout history, people have moved to flee persecution, war, famine or natural disasters. Some examples:
Half a million Irish came to the US to escape starvation and disease (18,451,850), with millions more by the end of the century. Many Italians came to the US escaping poverty and natural disasters in southern Italy. About two million Jews from Central and Eastern Europe arrived in the US between 1880 and 1920. Later the number skyrocketed after Russia erupted into deadly anti-Jewish riots and systematic discrimination against the Jewish population
A particularly horrible example of mass migration is the partition plan in India before independence from Britain. Violent divisions between the subcontinent’s Hindu and Moslem communities led to the partition plan dividing the area into India and Pakistan. Many millions were eventually displaced and one million killed in the sectarian violence that followed partition. In total, as many as 9 million Moslems migrated from India to Pakistan and over 5 million, Hindus and Sikhs, migrated to India.
Another example is the “Great Migration” of 6 million African Americans from the rural South in the US to the cities in the North from 1916 to 1970.
They were driven from their homes by unsatisfactory economic opportunities and harsh segregationist laws. They took advantage of the need for industrial workers in the North. While they found work they also experienced widespread racism and prejudice in the North as well.
Statistical Peak in Refugee Numbers
The media has created confusion in the use of the words “refugee” and “migrant.” “Refugees” are forced to flee their home countries because of armed conflict or persecution. “Migrants” are people who choose to resettle to another country in search of a better life. Refugees are protected by International law. The 1951 refugee convention defines who is a refugee and outlines their basic rights.
Absorbing many refugees in European countries will be difficult and there is a backlash. The refugee crisis is fueling the rise of Europe’s right wing. The anti-immigrant sentiment is in many ways anti-Islam. Often this religion is associated with terrorism. The recent terrorist attack in Paris will probably increase the support of the right wing.
Poland elected one of Europe’s most right wing parliaments. The Danish people party and the Swedish Democrats – which are both anti European Union and anti-immigration – have gained huge support.
In spite of the difficulties of the refugee crisis, does Europe benefit or lose?
The Pros and Cons of Refugee Influx
The World Bank in a major new report claims that the current flow of refugees will ultimately, if handled properly, have a positive effect on the economy. If countries with aging populations and declining working age people can create a path for refugees to participate in the economy, everyone will benefit.
Many of the refugees are young and educated and will work hard and contribute more in taxes than they consume in social services. Money for social services is important with rising numbers of older people.
Not everyone agrees. The British home secretary in a speech at the Conservative party conference said that mass migration has close to zero economic upside. The effect of refugees will vary from country to country. For example, in Greece, 25% of the population are out of a job, whereas Germany needs workers.
Refugees will also contribute to the culture. Genetically; refugees will create families within the countries leading to a more varied and stronger gene pool; known as hybrid vigor.
The transition will be difficult but it is the right thing to do and as well the smart thing to do.
Dr. Sylvain Ehrenfeld, the IHEU and National Ethical Service representative to the UN, and Dr. Reba Goodman, member of ECSBC.