Although the immigration emergency in Southern Europe is quite real, the phenomenon tends to trigger biased — that is, highly negative — media coverage that fails to take into consideration the great opportunity it offers a rapidly ageing continent.
But first, the numbers. Since the majority of migrants who cross the Mediterranean on makeshift vessels apply for political asylum, the number of requests for international protection provides an order of magnitude of the phenomenon. According to the most recent EU data, in the first quarter of 2015 the 28 member states received a total of 185,000 new asylum requests. If this trend continues through December, this year would post the highest-ever number of requests.
This is the part of the picture most often painted by the media, but if we shift perspective, another scenario emerges. The asylum requests in the first quarter of 2015, one of the most intense quarters ever, only amount to approximately 365 per one million EU inhabitants (in other words, around 120 a month). In some countries the quotient is higher but, paradoxically, not in the migrants’ first ports of call where public opinion believes the emergency to be at its worst.
In Italy, for example, there were 251 asylum requests per one million inhabitants in the first quarter of the year and in Greece even fewer at 239. In Germany, however, there were 905 requests per million inhabitants. Hungary, which curries little favour abroad owing to Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s extremist views, received 3,322 asylum requests per million inhabitants, the highest of all the EU countries.
The European countries reject the majority of the protection requests they receive. In 2014, the EU granted refugee status to around 185,000 asylum seekers, mainly of Syrian nationality, out of a total of over 625,000 requests. Asylum seekers whose requests are rejected are obliged to leave Europe: currently, this is one out of three migrants. And this number is likely to increase significantly with the reinforcement of repatriation operations set by the EU’s migration agenda.
It is clear that there is no invasion underway. And that problems stem from the fact that some states are unable to organise proper ways to receive migrants, along with the lack of solidarity across the EU in handling the worst emergencies.
But the perception of an invasion remains, partly due to an increase in the foreign populations living in certain countries. Taking into account long-term immigrants — legal, illegal and those awaiting legal status — many EU nations have seen the number of noncitizens increase considerably in recent years.
In Germany in 2014, there were seven million foreigners out of a population of over 80 million. In Italy, non-Italians account for close to five million of its population of over 60 million. It is important to point out that a substantial number of these foreigners hail from other EU countries. Moreover, in Italy’s case, the number of immigrants is almost identical to the number of Italians living abroad. So those who tout more homogenous countries are brandishing a double-edged sword.
With a clear idea of the figures involved, it is fair to ask whether the negative connotations of immigration are based on objective assessments or mere prejudice. Living cheek by jowl is never easy and the reasons for conflict are well known. Yet the opportunities that could emerge from proper handling of this phenomenon greatly outweigh the potential downsides.
As a continent, Europe has the oldest population in the world. Despite the increase in life expectancy, the number of deaths in many countries regularly outnumbers the births. Europeans are having less children and the only factor balancing out the demographic slump is immigration. In Germany and Italy, for example, deaths have been exceeding births for around a decade, and it is only thanks to the arrival of immigrants that the populations are growing. But not sufficiently.
According to the latest EU estimates, if current trends persist, by 2060 the workforce in Europe (people between the ages of 15 and 64) will drop to little more than double the number of over-65 pensioners.
Presently, there are four working adults per pensioner. At this level and given the structural drop in birth rates, the pension and healthcare budgets in European countries will soon become unsustainable.
To avoid such scenarios, young immigrants should be granted the conditions to work and pay into the social security system. But transforming a perceived threat into an opportunity calls for major organisational and cultural efforts.