WASHINGTON – The recent headlines and TV images about throngs of desperate Syrian families trying to board trains in Hungary that will hopefully take them to Germany would allow many if not most observers to believe that Europe is facing a dramatic but limited problem.
Just Syrian refugees
Right now, it seems that this is a sudden refugee crisis stemming from the horrible Syrian civil war. It would appear that most of the people trying to get to Europe are the victims of this prolonged conflict.
Besides, the European Union authorities and the member states governments, whatever their profound disagreements on a common refugee policy, talk in terms of precise numbers: 160,000 to be settled here, 20,000 there, and so on.
Because of this, the public may get the impression that, as difficult as all this is, this is a limited, manageable problem. There is a way for individual member states to be humane by accepting X number of Syrian refugees on their soil. After all this is done, the problem will be over.
A big migration
Well, not so. Not even remotely so.
It is of course true that –right now– the attention grabbing headline is Syria. But, unfortunately, the Syrian conflict and the refugee crisis it created is just the latest chapter of a decades-long history of desperate people who try to get out of poverty and misery in their own countries, with the hope that life in Europe will be better.
Immigrants from Africa
For example, the African migrants from Ghana, Nigeria or Senegal who cross the Sahara Desert, and then board old and unsafe vessels that will sail to Italy, have absolutely nothing to do with the Syrian conflict. And yet they have been coming, and coming, for decades. The number of daily arrivals is not a tidal wave. But the point is that these people –most of them driven by economic necessity– keep coming —every day.
Needless to say, other conflicts, such as the Libyan civil war, have given new momentum to this exodus. However, the Nigerians or Senegalese who keep coming have nothing to do with chaos in Libya.
Poverty and wars drive this migration
So, here is the thing. In several African countries and in the Middle East there is a really bad combination of poverty, lack of economic opportunity, disease, political chaos, and bloody conflicts.
These factors, in different ways, create the incentives to migrate. And Europe is the target destination because of geographic proximity, historic ties, and because of a somewhat relaxed (or confused, if you prefer) policy regarding immigrants.
While policies vary from country to country, the general perception among the would-be immigrants is that, once you get there, you get to stay. Period.
What does all this mean?
Well, if this is so, then what do we make of this seemingly unstoppable phenomenon? Very simple. On top of the millions who are already there, in the next few years there will be millions and millions new immigrants –legitimate refugees plus all the others– who will get to Europe simply because they believe that in Europe they will have a better life.
And what is the impact of this massive migration? The migrants who already got to Europe and settled there have transformed the countries where they have settled. Unfortunately, in most cases, not in a good way.
Simply stated, most host countries do not have the money and/or the resolve to foster a rapid integration process. Therefore, most immigrants end up living at the margin of society, with limited access to education, health care and work. From their perspective, this rather dismal existence as permanent underclass may be better than what they left behind in their home countries. But this is hardly optimal.
I am very pessimistic about the chances to radically improve this picture. There is poverty and war in Africa and the Middle East, and (supposedly) better economic conditions in Europe. Therefore, the incentive to get to Europe is just too strong.
And, remember, this is not a limited crisis. The Syrian civil war at some point will end. But this is an endless migration that could stop only if and when conditions in the countries of origin of all these immigrants really improve, in a dramatic way.
And I would not bet on this happening any time soon.