Suppose you are a Syrian doctor who has entered Belgium with your family after a perilous and long journey, having left everything behind. You may have spent most of any money you had making an illegal and dangerous crossing — some refugees have gone as far as the Arctic circle to enter Europe. You have had to dodge border control and police in two or three countries before reaching Belgium.
But getting to Belgium does not mean your troubles are over. You will face a long queue to register with an understaffed government service whose elaborate procedures have not been adapted to the current large inflows of refugees. You and your family may have to sleep in tents in a park in Brussels for several days waiting to be assigned a place to stay and some financial support. You may face hostility from some locals, though many are warm-hearted and will bring food
toys for your kids.
Will the misery be over after you get a place to stay? Chances are you’ll be put in a small hotel room at the government’s expense and the hotelier’s profit. Even if you are assigned a decent apartment, your ordeal is far from being over. You will be sent back to medical school if you want to practice in Belgium. The whole procedure can take up to 8 years and is full of obstacles — even though the EU is projected to be short of more than 200,000 physicians by 2020. In the meantime, you may have to get work driving a taxi to pay the rent.
This example, from my home country, illustrates the shortcomings of Europe’s response to the refugee crisis. The results are chaos and tragedy at the borders and growing tension inside EU countries between locals and refugees who are not integrating and increasingly feel marginalized and alienated. These are not problems that are going away, unless we find a speedy resolution to the conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa.
If Europe is to emerge safely and with any honor from the refugee crisis our response should be designed around three basic principles:
Go to where the problems are. If history is any guide, we should know that building walls does not keep migrants out. Instead, to reduce and control the flows we need to find ways to register and screen people close to their country of origin.
At present, the United Nations High Commissioner for the Refugees (UNHCR) is responsible for handling migrants in conflict countries (internally displaced people) and their immediate neighbors (refugees). But the EU is not paying nearly enough to help the UNHCR to cope with the huge flows. In situations of natural disasters of the kind I study at INSEAD’s Humanitarian Research Group, solutions to large scale population displacements are dealt with in situ or near to the disaster zone. Why should this be any different for the refugee crisis?
If European countries were to throw resources into quickly screening and transporting refugees directly in reasonable numbers from camps adjacent to the conflicts people are fleeing from, the incentives to migrate illegally would be reduced. Tensions at borders would remain, but again, more could be done to share the burden with border countries like Greece. Countries like Germany, France, and Britain could set up refugee screening facilities at the border and supply border control staff in a co-ordinated way so that the local police and border control forces are not overwhelmed.
Plan for long-term integration. Once the refugees have been admitted, we need to do more to assimilate them into their host societies. All too often we fall back on locating them in relatively large, isolated groups. But ghettoes create exclusion and fear. By contrast, dispersing refugees could have beneficial effects. In France, for example, many villages have been emptied by migration to nearby cities. Helping to repopulate some of these villages could in time give new life to rural France.
Assimilation and integration must be accelerated. To begin with, we need to cut red tape in order to get refugees into the workforce and the local communities they settle in. Some countries are making efforts in this respect. Sweden, for example, would be a good destination for the Syrian doctor: it has cut the medical accreditation process to four years and is looking for creative ways to bring it below two. Instead of sending doctors back to school, the Swedish authorities have them join medical teams in hospitals where their competences can be observed and they can be familiarized with local medical procedures. In short, the Swedes have created a practical and effective integration process.
It’s important to realize that integration is a long-term commitment. In our humanitarian work we all too often find that the aspirations and pledges that get made in the immediate aftermath of a disaster get forgotten with the passage of time. People are still living in temporary shelters in Haiti after the earthquake that destroyed Port-au-Prince five years ago. Even more shocking, perhaps, there are still people waiting to go back to the homes they lost in New Orleans when hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, a decade ago. European governments should be prepared to invest in assimilating the refugees for at least five years after they arrive — and preferably longer.
Make it human. Host populations should be given reasons and incentives to engage directly. Many people have a warm heart and want to help. Apps akin to AirBnB are already available to help migrants find home owners with spare rooms with financial support from local governments. One can imagine that many other apps could be developed to help migrants on a fast track to integration and value creation. The great benefit of these platforms is that they bring refugees and host citizens together in a way that governments can monitor and control. This is surely much better than putting a wall of bureaucracy between the two groups, which will only serve to extinguish the instinctive generosity that many Europeans are showing in their private initiatives.
At the same time, host countries need to make the effort to explain to their citizens that there are economic and social benefits to accepting refugees. Countries with aging populations and facing skills shortages might need the sort of well-educated young people making up a large proportion of the refugees – which is precisely the opportunity that some companies are recognizing, notably Volkswagen in Germany. An influx of refugees will only be a threat if our fear of them makes it one.
It’s equally important to bring the refugees themselves into the process. After all, they are the best placed to tell us what they can do and identify the obstacles and bottlenecks. Unfortunately, many so-called assimilation and integration plans are drafted without serious input from refugees. This kind of treatment belittles and will ultimately alienate the newcomers, making it harder for them to integrate and make their contributions to the countries they now call home. This is not to say that civil servants and NGO volunteers are not well meaning. But they are in a position of relative power to the refugees, which creates the potential for a psychologically dangerous dynamic to take hold.
The question is no longer whether we shall admit migrants. We will simply be forced to do so because we cannot effectively stop them by building walls. It is surely better for European countries to design admission and integration processes that will enable the migration to benefit rather than divide our countries. We have much to gain. Many of the refugees at our borders are resilient and entrepreneurial youngsters with skills we can use.
It’s not just about economics. A French father was recently shown on TV. He travels 40 km after work every day to distribute food to migrants in Paris. His explanation: “I have to do this, otherwise I won’t be able to talk to my kids later.”