Immigration and the EU

One of the biggest tests for the enlarged European Union in the years and decades to come will be how it manages the challenge of immigration. If European societies rise to this challenge, immigration will enrich and strengthen them. If they fail to do so, the result may be declining living standards and social division. There can be no doubt that European societies need immigrants. Europeans are living longer and having fewer children. Without immigration, the population of the soon-to-be 25 member states of the EU will drop, from about 450 million now to under 400 million in 2050. The EU is not alone. Japan, the Russian Federation and South Korea, among others, face similar possible futures – where jobs would go unfilled and services undelivered as economies shrink and societies stagnate. Immigration alone will not solve these problems, but it is an essential part of any solution. We can be sure that people from other continents will go on wanting to come and live in Europe. In today’s unequal world, vast numbers of Asians and Africans lack the opportunities for self-improvement that most Europeans take for granted. It is not surprising that many of them see Europe as a land of opportunity in which they long to begin a new life – just as the potential of the New World once attracted tens of millions of impoverished but enterprising Europeans. All countries have the right to decide whether to admit voluntary migrants (as opposed to bona fide refugees, who have a right to protection under international law). But Europeans would be unwise to close their doors. That would not only harm their long-term economic and social prospects, it would also drive more and more people to try and come in through the back door – by asking for political asylum (thus overloading a system designed to protect refugees who have fled in fear of persecution), or by seeking the help of smugglers, often risking death or injury in clandestine acts of desperation on boats, trucks, trains and planes. Illegal immigration is a real problem, and states need to cooperate in their efforts to stop it – especially in cracking down on smugglers and traffickers whose organized crime networks exploit the vulnerable and subvert the rule of law. But combating illegal immigration should be part of a much broader strategy. Countries should provide real channels for legal immigration, and seek to harness its benefits, while safeguarding the basic human rights of migrants. Poor countries can also benefit from migration. Migrants sent at least $88 billion to developing countries in remittances during 2002 – 54 percent more than the $57 billion those countries received in development aid. Migration is therefore an issue in which all countries have a stake – and which demands greater international cooperation. The recently established Global Commission on International Migration, co-chaired by distinguished public figures from Sweden and South Africa, can help to establish international norms and better policies to manage migration in the interest of all. I am confident that it will come up with good ideas and I hope it will win support from countries that «send» migrants as well as those that receive them. Managing migration is not just a matter of opening doors and joining hands internationally. It also requires each country to do more to integrate new arrivals. Immigrants must adjust to their new societies – and societies need to adjust too. Only with an imaginative strategy for integrating immigrants can countries ensure that they enrich the host society more than they unsettle it. While each country will approach this issue according to its own character and culture, no one should lose sight of the tremendous contribution that millions of immigrants have already made to modern European societies. Many have become leaders in government, science, academia, sports and the arts. Others are less famous but play an equally vital role. Without them, many health systems would be short-staffed, many parents would not have the home help they need to pursue careers, and many jobs that provide services and generate revenue would go unfilled. Immigrants are part of the solution, not part of the problem. All who are committed to Europe’s future, and to human dignity, should therefore take a stand against the tendency to make immigrants the scapegoats for social problems. The vast majority of immigrants are industrious, courageous, and determined. They don’t want a free ride. They want a fair opportunity for themselves and their families. They are not criminals or terrorists. They are law-abiding. They don’t want to live apart. They want to integrate, while retaining their identity. In this 21st century, migrants need Europe. But Europe also needs migrants. A closed Europe would be a meaner, poorer, weaker, older Europe. An open Europe will be a fairer, richer, stronger, younger Europe – provided Europe manages immigration well. (1) Kofi Annan is secretary-general of the United Nations. This article is based on a speech he will make to the European Parliament tomorrow.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.