Translated from German by Translators for Justice
Supposed waves of immigrants coming into “our social systems” or new patrol networks for EU border control on the Mediterranean feature strongly in reportage on refugees these days. A look at historical records of refugee movements worldwide reveals, however, the degree to which complaining about refugees is disproportionate.
In the aftermath of the catastrophe off the coast of Lampedusa, politicians from all ends of the political spectrum expressed their sorrow. At the same time they speak of the necessity of combating gangs of immigrant smugglers and the preventative stemming of the “influx of refugees”. However, the term “influx of refugees” is inappropriate and serves as a panic-causing pretence for restrictive border policies. The number of people who come over the Schengen area’s borders without valid documentation is, in reality, insignificantly small when compared to both historical and current worldwide migration movements.
The United Nation’s Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that at the start of 2013 a total of 10.4 million people worldwide were in search of refuge. In addition to this, there are 4.8 million people in UN refugee camps in the Middle East. The overwhelming majority of these refugees are taken in by countries outside of the first world. Dadaad, the world’s largest refugee camp in northeast Kenya, alone contains over half a million refugees, some of whom have been there for 20 years.
In contrast, the UNHCR calculates that the number of “illegal” refugees who arrived in Malta and Italy in the first half of 2013 comes to 8,400. Even the EU border control agency, FRONTEX, believes that only 15,000 refugees arrived in Italy and Malta over the entire year of 2012. As regards immigration into Europe, the EU statistics office reports that in 2011 1.7 million people arrived from outside the EU while another 1.3 million moved from one EU state to another. The approximately 15,000 refugees who arrived in Italy and Malta therefore represent around 0.9% of total immigration to the EU, 0.1% of the total number of refugees worldwide and around 0.003% of the total population of the EU. The figure of 15,000 arrivals to Italy and Malta is therefore insignificantly small both in comparison to global movements of refugees as well in comparison to immigration to Europe.
Migration has always been a vital component in the way our world works and in the history of human development. In the 19th century millions of Europeans migrated to North and South America. In 2012 alone, 30,000 German citizens migrated to the USA while another 25,000 migrated to Switzerland. As a result of the civil war in Syria, around two million people are currently in search of refuge in that country’s neighbouring states.
In Lebanon alone (where approximately four million people live in an area around half the size of Wales or the state of New Jersey), there are 800,000 Syrian refugees. Recently, Germany announced its acceptance of 5,000 Syrian refugees with great fanfare. Given German and EU rhetoric on human rights and dignity, this figure is an utter mockery of the misery faced by millions of distressed refugees around the world.
German policies on refugees were, however, not always this restrictive. During the Cold War West Germany was more than happy to accept (political) refugees in order to demonstrate its appeal and superiority in comparison to the “enemies of the class system”. In 1992 the newly reunited Germany granted 440,000 refugees asylum. This number had fallen to only 45,000 in 2011.
During the war in the Balkans of the 1990s in particular, Germany offered its protection to many refugees from the former Yugoslavia. As a result, Germany became the central point of reference for many people from the Balkans, which proved to be of enormous benefit for the German economy as well as for German language and culture. The majority of former refugees have either returned home or found work in Germany and therefore pay taxes and social insurance contributions.
The rhetoric about the “influx of refugees” is not only out of proportion but also stirs up unnecessary and unjustified fears amongst the public. A further problem in both political and media reportage is the use of the term “illegal immigrants”. No person is illegal per se. It is our restrictive laws that make the residence of people of certain nationalities illegal. The constitutional based principle of equality of all people is applied selectively in German and European migration policies.
While many of us, being born with German citizenship, enjoy the good fortune of being able to reside in other countries either temporarily or permanently, we deny the same rights to people from other countries – in particular to those from countries which cannot provide security or prospects to their citizens.
Although around 30,000 Germans moved to the USA in 2012, they certainly did not do this due to fear for their lives or survival. The 15,000 refugees who arrived in Italy and Malta, however, have taken on the burden of an often life-threatening journey in order to make a dignified existence for themselves and their families possible. These people are neither illegal nor a threat to us and they do not come to Europe to enrich themselves through our social protection systems. They come due to poverty and in order to work. Therefore, they will not stay in the southern EU states but rather move to the countries where it is possible for them to work.
Migration of those willing to work has been evident for centuries and has always led to benefits for the destination countries as well as the migrant workers themselves, be it the mass migration to the booming USA in the 19th and 20th centuries, the foreign workers who came to Germany in the 1960s, the illegalised labour migration for the fruit industry in southern Spain or California, or the opening of the European labour market in the 2000s.
It is therefore neither rational nor moral to defend the fact that our laws illegalise impoverished people from the worst warzones in the world. It is even less justifiable that Germany and the EU are combating the same people with a highly armed army of border controllers, which entails immense costs and a willingness to accept the loss of innocent lives. A liberal and humane migration policy (like that which we demand for ourselves) and the distribution of refugees throughout the whole EU would at least partially fulfil the EU’s moral obligations and would also have the effect of putting an end to the dealings of inhumane gangs of migrant smugglers without resorting to any military measures.