The European Refugee Crisis: The Need for Long-term Policies and Lessons from the Nordic Region

Despite the increasingly cold weather, tens of thousands refugees and migrants continue to make their way to Europe. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the number of people entering to seek asylum in the month of October alone was 218,000, a figure that surpassed the entire number of arrivals in 2014 (216,054). So far this year, 846,119 individuals have arrived via different routes over the Mediterranean Sea, with 3,485 people reported dead or missing along the perilous journey. The tragic events in Paris have spilled over into the political discourse of this crisis, with several countries now linking security concerns with the arrival of undocumented individuals fleeing the Syrian civil war and instability in other parts of the world.

European leaders hold one emergency meeting after another to identify ways to address the multitude of challenges presented by this unprecedented influx. However, conclusions issued by the European Council continue to suggest that actions seeking to fortify Europe’s external borders around the Schengen zone are incomplete; that procedures to return economic migrants and establish processing and resettlement centers are unclear; and that maritime operations need to be enhanced. In addition, it should also be evident that a cohesive solution needs to coordinate long-term resettlement strategies for refugees who need sustainable housing programs, health care, and educational opportunities.

More meetings do not seem to resolve the massive inflow of undocumented individuals, and the lack of burden-sharing mechanisms and political unity within the European Union so far has generated a myriad of disparate solutions pursued by individual member states. Strategies aimed at tackling the long-term aspects of this humanitarian crisis are nowhere to be found, but an increased number of barbed-wire fences along Hungary’s border with Serbia and Croatia are. Countries are not adequately increasing migrant quotas as proposed by the European Commission—in fact, following the Paris attacks, some member states that have taken obstructive positions against a collective approach are now refusing to accept even the initial quota due to security concerns.

As short-term humanitarian needs relating to transportation, registration, and temporary housing morph into a long-term reality that inevitably centers on jobs, education, and social inclusion, Europe must build an integration strategy based upon a basic understanding of what has historically worked and what hasn’t. A failure to do so will likely produce heightened xenophobic tensions, political fragmentation both within and between member states, as well as a radicalized, “lost generation” of Syrian diaspora scattered across the European Union. Ultimately, the situation poses a profound challenge to European unity, as well as to the concept of the free movement of people, one of the four “fundamental freedoms” upon which the European Union was founded. It will not be easy, but it is essential that Europe maintain its future relevance on the world stage by broadening and deepening the internal market, rather than succumbing to isolationism and decentralization.

Despite the enormity of the challenges, Europe has an opportunity to integrate refugees into European society, which will reinvigorate its institutions by boosting economic growth and incorporating a skilled workforce at a time when the European Union suffers from considerable demographic decline and anemic economic recovery. From this perspective, several Nordic countries provide an interesting, yet high-risk model for how small economies with highly advanced welfare states can confront the worst refugee crisis since World War II.

Although four Nordic governments in Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark (Iceland has not been impacted by the migration crisis) have been politically squeezed for their pro-immigrant policies by far right parties (some parties are now the second- or third-largest party in their respective parliaments prior to the crisis), these countries have accepted far more refugees than most European countries on a per capita basis. Nordic countries are also collaborating with UNHCR on resettlement quotas, unlike nearly half of the EU member states. This presents both a substantial challenge in terms of political unity and matters of national security, while at the same time indicating a way forward in meeting the modest goals established by the European Commission.

According to data compiled by Eurostat, the EU statistical agency, by the end of August 2015, approximately 689,000 individuals who applied for asylum protection in the European Union are still under consideration by the responsible national authority. Measuring the number of first-time asylum applicants per million inhabitants by country, Finland accepted 294, Denmark 441, and Norway 534. These countries took in higher numbers than France (221), Italy (245), and the United Kingdom (115). Sweden, having taken in more than 327,000 people since 2011, faced 1,467 applicants per million inhabitants during the second quarter of 2015, a considerably higher number than Germany (997). Prime Minister Löfvén of Sweden recently declared that this will be the country’s largest inflow of refugees in history, expecting between 150,000 and 190,000 individuals to reach its borders just within the year. The estimated inflow for next year is between 100,000 and 170,000 individuals, about a quarter of them being unescorted children.

Social benefits and housing plans within the Nordic countries are generally more ambitious than in other parts of Europe. In the cases of Sweden and Norway, these countries combine the issuance of temporary work permits for highly educated asylum seekers with the delivery of accessible education for children. The policy focus on work permits and education is based upon the understanding that the current stream of asylum seekers from Syria, Eritrea, Iraq, and Afghanistan (which represent about half of the current influx) tend to be young and in some cases quite well educated. According to Eurostat, 55 percent of all documented asylum applicants who arrived in 2015 are between 18 and 34 years old. 18 percent are between 0 and 13 years old. Roughly a third of all Syrian refugees holds a university degree or has trained for a qualified profession. In sharp contrast, refugees in other European countries are not eligible for temporary work permits nor enrollment in higher education institutions while their asylum case is being adjudicated, a process that in some cases could take up to two years with the current pace of operations.

Yet all is not completely well in the Nordic context. In light of increasing public opposition, Finland and Denmark have drastically reduced financial and social benefits for immigrants, as this has been perceived by the public to attract more refugees. Denmark’s center-right government recently decided to hold a referendum in December on whether to accept more refugees or not. Finland’s center-right coalition government, having resisted EU quotas for a long time, recently proposed an increased capital gains tax and income tax on high earners to help pay for a 10-fold increase in refugees expected to arrive this year (from 3,600 in 2014 to 30,000 so far in 2015), citing its ongoing recession. Finnish finance minister Alexander Stubb stated that this tax is the only way to cover rising immigration costs, estimated to reach about €114 million this year. Similarly, the Norwegian Foreign Ministry has calculated that housing, health programs, and language training for a single refugee in Norway will cost $125,000 per year (enough to support 25–27 Syrians in Jordan, according to the United Nation’s own measurement), suggesting that allocating funds for UNHCR programs in refugee camps would be a more cost effective approach.

In Sweden, the country’s migration agency has suggested that the government needs to raise around $10 billion to maintain its current level of operations, and the government’s new budget plan for 2016 suggested that it will reallocate between 22 and 60 percent of the funding for international aid programs in order to sustain the response to the crisis at home. This also means putting on hold flagship reforms such as increased spending on public education, balancing the budget, and dramatically reducing youth unemployment for the foreseeable future.

Despite the public and budget pressures, the Swedish government has so far maintained its stance on granting permanent residency to almost all Syrians seeking asylum on its soil (but not all refugees), as it is the country’s moral imperative to provide an open door to those seeking protection from conflict and ethnic violence. The country faced a somewhat similarly dramatic situation in 1992, when 84,018 individuals arrived within a few months fleeing conflict and ethnic-cleansing campaigns in the Western Balkans. In another compelling case, the Swedish city of Södertälje, a town of 80,000 residents, received more Iraqi refugees than the United States and Canada combined during the 2003–2008 time period. Although clearly an initial financial burden to the state, integrating refugees into the workforce, educational system, and social life has provided a return on investment, as recent data from the Swedish Migration Agency indicates that a majority of the Western Balkan and Iraqi populations today is engaged in the country’s workforce, paying taxes and generating growth.

But the results have not been perfect. There are indications of vulnerable and non-assimilated communities that all too often slide into marginalization. A recent study on segregation in Sweden found that 38 communities around the country suffer from unemployment rates around 46 percent or higher, most of them being predominantly populated by newly arrived immigrants. Sweden’s relatively high number of foreign fighters (between 300 and 400 individuals) also underscores the consequences of policy failure.

There are also growing concerns among some European intelligence agencies that Islamic militants are using people-smuggling networks or refugee routes to infiltrate vulnerable European countries with insufficient vetting procedures. Notably, such claims were categorically dismissed by the Danish Intelligence Services (PET), with its head of operations, Finn Borch Andersen, stating that such undertakings would provide “too many safety hazards and increase the great risk of being exposed by law enforcement.” But although most data indicate that the bulk of militant elements posing a credible threat to the Nordic countries either are radicalized second-generation citizens returning from battle in Syria/Iraq or “lone wolves” stemming from the white supremacy movements in Europe, the Norwegian Intelligence Service (PST) recently suggested that 5–10 out of the 1,000 quota refugees assigned by the UNHCR were suspected of having ties to the al-Nusra Front or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). In similar fashion, the Swedish Security Service (SÄPO) has announced that it is working in close collaboration with the Swedish Migration Agency to screen for militant affiliations or undercover Syrian intelligence agents seeking to infiltrate the Syrian diaspora in Sweden. So far this year, over 286 cases have been handed over to SÄPO, and the country recently raised its national threat assessment to level 4 out of 5, an unprecedented move that has triggered a wave of security measures around public spaces and strategic objects.

Synchronizing and intensifying adequate vetting procedures is necessary although it substantially slows the adjudication process amidst an overwhelming inflow of individuals, as the United States has experienced. But experience tells us that the most comprehensive prevention of radicalization and recruitment will come from ambitious and holistic integration efforts. This means governments not closing the door on a young and traumatized asylum population filled with aspirations to start a new life in Europe. Leaving these people on the sidelines, locked up or without possibilities to engage, is a guaranteed recipe for failure.

And this overwhelming flow does not appear to be ending any time soon. Although EU member states having reached a modest consensus position on how to redistribute 160,000 refugees from mainly Greece and Italy several months ago, only about 134 of these have so far been reallocated. This challenge will not be resolved in the near term, and Europe must begin to lay the groundwork for long-term refugee resettlement. This groundwork begins with four tangible actions from European governments.

First, the European Council should expedite the ongoing harmonization process on how asylum applications are processed within the European Union, since several member states are currently applying different rules and criteria for asylum requests. During the second quarter of 2015, 75 percent of all asylum applications were rejected in France, while the corresponding number was 25 percent in Sweden and 48 percent in Belgium. Such discrepancies undermine a collective approach, and efforts to harmonize standards are imperative for guaranteeing adequate reception conditions for asylum seekers, as well as for implementing the process of returning economic migrants to their countries of origin.

Second, like Germany and some of the Nordic countries, European governments should allow refugees to make productive contributions to the local economy by issuing temporary work permits during the lengthy screening process. Fast-tracking the validation process of university degrees and recognizing qualifications from well-educated refugees is a particularly valuable step in this regard.

Third, host countries should invest in making education and language training widely accessible for refugee children and minors. Since both families with temporary and permanent citizenship are likely to stay for the foreseeable future, education is key for long-term efforts to integrate the “lost” generation into society rather than maintaining them in costly isolation and dependence.

Finally, governments must unify and harmonize the application of social benefits to avoid secondary movements within Europe and mitigate the diplomatic tensions between high/lower-income member states. Currently, Germany offers 400 euros plus free lodging to refugees, while benefits in Bulgaria barely cover a fourth of that. A standard benefit should be phased in, and for member states unable to provide this minimum standard, the European Union should use its civil crisis funds or other financial instruments.

If the appropriate foundational strategies are not put into place in a timely manner, European countries face risky and costly consequences of policy negligence. This is why the Nordic countries offer some potential models. At the same time, even they are not immune from domestic political and economic backlash. But without a long-term focus on education, economic integration, and social inclusion, Europe risks having a lost generation of refugees and migrants with unpredictable consequences for the future.

Carl Hvenmark Nilsson is a visiting fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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