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Migrants trapped in Greece gather at the Macedonian border on March 1, 2016. Frustrations have boiled over, with Macedonian police firing tear gas and migrants tearing down a gate in the barbed-wire fencing. (MARKO DJURICA/REUTERS)
Migrants trapped in Greece gather at the Macedonian border on March 1, 2016. Frustrations have boiled over, with Macedonian police firing tear gas and migrants tearing down a gate in the barbed-wire fencing. (MARKO DJURICA/REUTERS)

koser and omidvar

Europe’s real crisis: confidence Add to ...

Khalid Koser is executive director of the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund; and chair of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Migration. On March 2, he delivers the 2016 GDX Annual Lecture in Toronto.

Ratna Omidvar is executive director of the Global Diversity Exchange at the Ted Rogers School of Management, Ryerson University, and chair of Lifeline Syria.


It is not impossible to reduce the number of refugees and migrants arriving in Europe. Protection and aid for displaced people still inside Syria can be strengthened to reduce their impetus to flee the conflict. Providing work permits to refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon would make staying in those countries a more viable option than trying to get to Europe. More concerted efforts to combat the smuggling of migrants will stem the flow, and no doubt save lives.

Building walls and closing borders, on the other hand, will not work.

But this misses the point. For Europe’s refugee crisis is not one of numbers – it is one of confidence. Politicians who lack the confidence to lead. A lack of public confidence in the state’s ability to manage migration. Confidence in the entire European project shaken by concerns about terrorist infiltration, job competition, and capacities to deal with large numbers of newcomers.

Canadians should watch closely to see how, and if, Europe is able to resolve this underlying, real crisis. Whatever Europe’s experience, it will have reverberations around the world, including in Canada.

Here are four ways Europe can resolve its crisis of confidence, and by extension, help Canada guard against one of its own:

First, get some perspective. Most of the world’s refugees are in poorer countries, and the majority of Syria’s displaced are inside Syria or neighbouring countries. Europe’s 500 million people, the world’s wealthiest single market, can easily accommodate a few million newcomers. In the mid-1990s, the European Union – then 15 members – absorbed one million Balkan refugees. Canada resettled more than 60,000 Southeast Asian refugees in less than 18 months from 1979 to 1980. The current 28 members of the EU can and should absorb many more than they have so far taken in. And Canada can and should extend its commitment to Syrian refugees beyond 2016.

Second, be more pro-active. So far, the hallmark of Europe’s response to the refugee influx has been to react: increasing naval patrols after more than 3,000 people drowned in the Mediterranean, increasing aid to Turkey after almost three million refugees arrived there. A more pro-active response should look upstream, and focus on peoples’ need to leave Syria or the immediate region. It should also look downstream and figure out how to integrate refugees who have arrived in Europe and are unlikely to return to their homelands. Unless they are integrated, some will end up among society’s poor, excluded, and possibly even radicalized. Integration efforts must include access to language training and meaningful work, and a stake in society, such as citizenship and voting. This is how you turn refugees into citizens, and it is a lesson Europe can learn from Canada.

Third, turn a negative into a positive. The challenge confronting Europe should not be underestimated, especially where it is focused on communities (such as Malmo, Sweden, where 10,000 asylum seekers arrived every week in late 2015). But the influx also is an economic opportunity. Europe, like Canada, has gaps in the labour market and an escalating demographic crisis. If given the opportunity to train, apprentice, and work, today’s refugees can be tomorrow’s engine of growth.

Fourth, work as partners. The EU, national governments, and international institutions have failed to inspire confidence. They need to draw on the compassion demonstrated by citizens and civil society, and the innovation and resources of the private sector, in new partnerships. Canada’s private sponsorship of refugees program is one such innovation, with Canadians stepping forward to open their wallets, hearts and minds to Syrian refugees. Another example is the holistic response by Siemens in partnership with German cities that includes housing and work for asylum seekers.

What are the prospects? Parts of Europe are not optimistic. Europeans think they are in the throes of a crisis; their leaders continue to focus on the short term; few are willing to publicly promote the idea that there is opportunity in the midst of this crisis; and most view the refugee situation as a matter of national security.

Canada is more optimistic, with its resettlement of 25,000 Syrians so far and the promise of more to follow. Public support and compassion are at an all-time high. But it is unclear if the response will continue beyond 2016 and if Canadians’ compassion will include refugees from other parts of the world.

The norms, values and laws that underpin refugee protection are in jeopardy in Europe, and Canada is not isolated from the continent’s problems, or its solutions.

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