The refugee crisis & why America is different—part 1

This piece originally appeared at Musings On the Right. It is published here in modified form.

As someone interested in immigration from a conservative, American perspective, the recent migration crisis in Europe is fascinating to me. For starters, the genuine human tragedy is palpable. Even the most stringent of nativists must be moved by the images of humanity dying en masse in the Mediterranean Sea.

Furthermore even the most cheerful pro-immigration advocates can’t help but furrow their brows at the potential difficulties with assimilating and integrating migrants from North Africa and the Near East—especially Muslim migrants—in Europe.

These difficulties and America’s recent refugee crisis with Central American children has left me wondering about how the American situation compares to Europe. I want to analyze a few major questions: How does America differ from Europe? What are the pros and cons of Muslim immigration to Europe? Is there a legitimate comparison to be made between the European and American refugee situations?

The European refugee crisis: a summary

European Union member states have bound themselves to a number of common immigration and asylum policies that affect this ongoing crisis.

The first is the Schengen Agreement, which functionally abolished national borders within the eponymous Schengen Area, enabling passport-free movement within the EU. Notably, several EU states, such as Ireland, Great Britain, Croatia, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Romania are not part of the Schengen Area, whereas non-EU states such as Switzerland, Lichtenstein, Norway and Ireland are. (The agreement allows internal borders to be restored temporarily in extraordinary circumstances.) The relaxation of internal migration within this area has made Europe’s external borders a matter of significant interest.

The second is the Dublin Regulation, specifically its third negotiation, effective in 2008. Dublin III requires refugees to apply for refugee status in the country they have fled to. That country makes a final determination on behalf of the EU member states about whether the applicant can be granted refugee status.

Recently, Germany and the Czech Republic suspended their adherence to the Dublin Regulation, allowing refugees to be directly processed for asylum, whereas border states such as Hungary have been steadfast in their insistence that EU states should stick to the 2008 protocol.

Some Basis Facts

Since last year, Europe has undergone a massive wave of refugees, unrivaled since the 1990s refugee crisis during the wars in the former Yugoslav region.

In 2014, the European Union received over 626,000 refugees, up from 400,000 in 2013. In addition, illegal border crossings skyrocketed to over 400,000 last year. As of November, nearly 900,000 people have applied for asylum in the European Union in 2015.

Tragically, thousands have died since 2014 in attempts to reach Europe by boat, with over 22,000 deaths since 2000.

The main migration routes have been from Turkey directly into the EU by sea, by land through the western Balkans, and from North Africa into Italy through the central Mediterranean, A number of smaller routes are less widely used. The oversea routes tend to be most dangerous.

Map showing countries of origin and number of refugees entering Europe during the first half of 2015.
European migrant crisis. Asylum applicants in Europe between 1 January and 30 June 2015. (Wikimedia CC BY-SA 2.0)

While Syrian refugees are the largest demographic, they account for no more than a quarter of the refugees so far. The wave of refugees and migrants in the last two years is in fact extremely diverse. The largest groups are as follows;

  • Near East: Syria, Iraq
  • South Asia: Afghanistan, Pakistan
  • Eastern Europe: Kosovo, Serbia, Albania, Ukraine, Russia
  • Sub-Saharan Africa: Nigeria, Eritrea, Somalia

Other refugees come from North Africa, the Near East, Eastern Europe, and all over West Africa. However, the reason for the recent spike has certainly been people fleeing the conflict in Syria and Iraq. While a large proportion (an estimated 62%) are people fleeing active war zones, a decent number are of course also economic migrants.

These refugees have applied to a variety of countries in the EU, predominately Germany, Hungary and Austria. A massive surge in the future is expected, possibly up to 800,000 in Germany alone by the end of this year.

EU member states have reacted to the refugee crisis in various ways. Germany initially offered to take in over 800,000 refugees unilaterally, but now it looks as if German chancellor Angela Merkel may backtrack on that opening offer. While EU ministers have adopted a plan to resettle a modest 120,000 refugees throughout the EU over 2 years, its application has been unsteady and disputed, as several countries have either opted out or actively fought against the measure. Under the proposed plan, Germany, Spain, and France would take the lion’s share of the refugees, the remainder of which would be spread out over the other EU member states. The United Kingdom, Ireland, and Denmark opted out of the proposal. The resettlement plan was also opposed by the states bordering the crisis, namely the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Hungary and Romania.

Despite these political wranglings, a large number of refugees have in fact been accepted. As the Economist points out, while many of those applying are economic migrants, refugees fleeing war zones all enjoy an acceptance rate over 50%, which has created an interesting cottage industry of counterfeiting Syrian passports in order to increase chances of acceptance.  (Over 200,000 Syrians have been accepted.) By comparison, North America has taken in very few refugees, with the US accepting 1,500 (and proposing 10,000 next year) and Canada allowing in 10,000 over three years. Australia has pledged to take in 12,000.

But even the massive influx of refugees into Europe is a microcosm of the wider refugee crisis in the Near East. An overlooked element in this debate is that most Syrian refugees are not seeking asylum in Europe but rather are living in the wider Arab and Muslim world. Nearly 8 million people in Syria alone are internal refugees within Syria itself (which is astonishing considering that the total population of Syria is only 22 million people). 4 million Syrians or so are living in Turkey and Lebanon, while another million are spread throughout Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. Interestingly enough the Arab gulf states have taken no refugees so far, though the Cato Institute points out that 1.3 million Syrians do live in the Gulf states but are not listed as refugees.

The bottom line is that we are witnessing an outpouring of refugees, predominantly from the Near East, into the developed, western world. Unfortunately, as the Syrian situation continues to deteriorate, we can only imagine this crisis will get even worse.

Culture, Crime & Assimilation

While immigration had been an ongoing political issue in Europe and the rest of the western world before the crisis, this recent wave of refugees and economic migrants has brought the question of assimilation to the fore. While there are also debates about economic sustainability, welfare dependency, concerns over wage suppression, job competition, and so on, one question is increasingly on the European mind: Can Europe assimilate such a large number of Muslim migrants?

In America, mostly right-wing critics of immigration have been known to question whether immigrants (especially immigrants from the Muslim world, but Latin Americans too) are able to successfully assimilate into American society. On the other hand, some on the left wonder whether cultural assimilation is even a legitimate discussion to be having in the 21st century.

As I discussed last year in a podcast at Virtue in the Wasteland, when the United States had its own (miniature by comparison) refugee crisis regarding Central American children fleeing across US-Mexico border. Unfortunately the debate over assimilation, culture and related issues remains incredibly shallow, carried on by extreme nativists who smell cultural balkanization in every Spanish-language advertisement or progressives who deny assimilation could pose any difficulty at all. The debate tends to be split into two camps: the Pat Buchanan or Enoch Powell camp, which argues that diversity inherently breeds conflict, and the “Diversity is Our Strength” camp.

I think the issue of culture, diversity and assimilation is in fact quite a bit more complicated. Certainly, places have cultures. That is to say, they emphasize particular values of thinking and acting. Culture is often summed up in externals such as holidays, food, and language but it goes much deeper. At its core culture is an identity, a loose way of thinking, acting and set of beliefs shared among a group of people. Usually these people have lived together through particular conditions and experiences. These shared beliefs, myths, experiences and a common medium to express them (language), affects the political order of a nation. While this could be a controversial thesis, it’s one that we all believe in. We just use it to explain scenarios that are most politically acceptable to us.

For instance, conservatives and progressives in the United States look at Japan’s extremely low crime rate as a matter of policy. (Japan has a homicide rate of less than 1 per 100,000 whereas America’s hovers between 4-5.) Conservatives might claim this as a byproduct of Japan’s extremely restrictive immigration policies, whereas liberals would say it is due to Japan’s highly restrictive gun laws. But perhaps the divergence can be explained by culture. While this oversimplifies the case, Japan has a tendency to value conformity, which has a positive effect on social aberrations such as crime. By contrast, America may have a higher crime rate (for developed nations) in part due to the fact that Americans not only do not place a high value on conformity, but are simply more violent people!

Or, for a scenario more to the liking of my progressive friends, take the American South. While drawing comparisons between western and non-western nations’ cultures may be uncomfortable for some, there is no shortage of literature describing the problem with violence the American South as fundamentally cultural. Notably there doesn’t seem to be any taboo among respectable progressive people about discussing the supposed cultural deficiencies of the South. There may be more than a grain of truth to the idea that the culture and conditions of the rural South affect, among other things, its economic outcomes.

In short, we all on some level accept that culture, and all it entails, will affect policy outcomes in any society. We are just choosy about how willing we are to point it out, probably depending on how culturally close to home it is for us.

But it’s clear that culture is something that exists, however ephemeral, and it does affect outcomes, both good and bad. So what happens when people enter a society who didn’t go through the experiences of the “native culture?” Does it weaken the culture and breed conflict between natives and newcomers? Does it inherently strengthen the native culture? Or possibly something in between?

If it isn’t already too obvious already from my tone, I choose Door No. 3. Dr. Robert Putnam, Harvard sociologist famous for books like Bowling Alone and Better Together, comes to a different, more nuanced conclusion. Contrary to the multiculturalists, diversity is not inherently a strength. The Boston Globe summarizes his research thus:

It has become increasingly popular to speak of racial and ethnic diversity as a civic strength . . . Robert Putnam has found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogeneous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.

Putnam put it this way in an interview with the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard:

The short run effect of being around people who are different from us is to make all of us uncertain – to hunker down, to pull in, to trust everybody less. Like a turtle in the presence of some feared threat, we pull in.

Naturally, nativists of all stripes jumped on Putnam’s research. Putnam himself said he was horrified at the conclusions that some extremists drew from his work. But in fact Putnam also found that wider unifying, cultural phenomena — he lists religion and identity-building institutions like the military — can alleviate the tendency to separate and hunker down. To put it another way, assimilation can and does smooth out differences. Cultural differences are in fact not some genetic, innate trait. (In fact, if it were, the Balkans would be a great place to live, with little to no ethnic tension.)

So cultural concerns are of some validity. The culture of a place does, to an extent, affect negative and positive political outcomes. Furthermore it’s clear that while diversity does not inherently breed conflict, neither does it act as an innate civic strength.

Assimilation: Europe & America

So this raises a few more questions. If assimilation is going to be a necessary challenge, if culture affects policy outcomes and if there are going to be more calls to accept refugees from the Near East:

  1. How well does the United States assimilate immigrants in general?
  2. How well does the United States assimilate Muslim immigrants in particular?
  3. How well does Europe deal with either of the above questions?

Since this post is already too long, I will answer these questions in two subsequent posts. But first I will make a quick observation. Despite the fact that the United States is, culturally, an overwhelmingly European-rooted society, the United States does a far better job of assimilating immigrants than Europe does.

The RAND Corporation points out:

[We] conclude that today’s Mexican inflow differs little from past mass immigrations into the United States by the Irish, the Jews, and the Italians and that assimilation should be as successful as in the past. France, however, while it has successfully assimilated a wide variety of individuals, has had no previous mass immigrations, and its current direction is likely to lead to increasing problems.

Not only is this true of head on comparison between the United States and France, but also true between the United States, Canada and the European Union in general. The Manhattan Institute notes:

On the whole, immigrants in the United States are more assimilated than those in most European countries, except Portugal, where a large proportion of immigrants originated in former Portuguese-speaking colonies.

The report goes on to specifically note that while Europe continues to struggle with Muslim immigration, the United States and Canada by comparison do quite well.

In all, Europe and the United States face an extremely thorny issue. Along with hundreds of thousands of people fleeing misery and violence, there are questions of how best to act in the interests of citizens. How successfully are immigrants really assimilating, and how, if at all, can we reproduce these successes? What difficulties are there and, how, if at all, can we mitigate them? Are Europe’s immigration troubles likely to come to the United States, and would that be a reason to curtail immigration? Should America’s historic success with assimilation success be a blueprint for the EU? These are the questions I am hoping to settle (a bit) in the next two posts.


Since this issue is so huge, I’ve attached a few resources that are good reading as well as extremely helpful in breaking down such a large topic.

  • Putnam’s interview on NPR
  • Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert Putnam, 2000.
  • Assimilating Immigrants: Why America Can and France Cannot by Robert Levine, RAND Corporation, 2004.
  • Comparing Immigrant Assimilation in North America and Europe, Manhattan Institute, 2011.
  • The Economist refugee breakdown
  • The Syrian Refugee Crisis and Lessons from the Iraqi Refugee Experience by Sarah Tobin, Institute for Iraqi Studies, 2015.

Featured image by Mstyslav Chernov (CC BY-SA 4.0)

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