The Darwinism of Open Borders

Syrian refugees strike in front of Budapest Keleti railway station. Refugee crisis. Budapest, Hungary, Central Europe, 3 September 2015. Photo: Mstyslav Chernov, Wikimedia

The problem with the European ‘first come-first served’ asylum policy is that the resources are directed to help the strongest and boldest, not those most in need.

Last year the ongoing migration crisis became one of the most fiercely dividing issues in many European countries. The discussion has been polarized, people quickly became categorized into “refugees welcome” versus “xenophobic” camps with not much space left for nuanced discussion about how to handle the phenomenon that, as has become obvious by now, is more complicated than either camp would have liked to admit. Only recently, after some problems– such as the limited absorbing capacity of even the most welcoming countries like Sweden and Germany, and the emerging information about organized harassment of women all over Europe – have surfaced, have we begun to hear varied voices amidst the simplified pro Vs. con arguments.

Now, the borderless movement within Europe that we’ve taken for granted for decades, is being put in doubt, but many aspects of the open-border policy practiced this far (or at least for most of last year) have still been ignored. Labeling anyone who questions the open borders a racist has not contributed to constructive debate any more than the xenophobic and hateful rhetoric on the far right. To have a meaningful debate on the whole issue we must to give up the polarized divisions. Given the information we have today, and foreseeing upcoming trends, one can be an open-minded, pro-diversity liberal and question the open-border policy on good grounds.

A question that now has been reluctantly taken up is whether there are limits to the numbers of migrants that can be successfully absorbed by societies within a certain timeframe – in other words, whether there is such a thing as “too many”. More and more people, also from the initial “all refugees welcome” camp, are now admitting that there are limits – some purely economic, others related to the social and cultural integration capacities of the recipient societies as well as the migrants themselves.

Anyone but the openly xenophobic camp has also been reluctant to face the question of cultural differences. It has been mostly denied that cultural differences have any significance for the societies’ absorption capacity. Some Eastern European countries have been placed into the xenophobic camp for declaring they’d prefer to welcome Christian refugees. At the same time, not much attention has been paid to the fact that non-Muslim minorities such as Christians and Yazidis have been targeted for persecution and even genocide on the basis of their cultural identity in the Middle East and thus are collectively in strong need of protection, more obviously so than members of larger groups with much more diverse reasons to leave the region.

The question whether the migration wave from conflict areas can be a security risk for Europe was also dismissed for too long. Pro-open-borders voices insisted that “they” could not be terrorist sympathizers because “they” were running from terrorism – as if we could embrace a million people as a compact “they”, a homogenous entity with one indivisible identity and just one reason to migrate. The opposite side has likewise treated the migrants as a compact whole, seeing them basically as an invading army. No one seemed to notice that among the migrants and asylum seekers there are different people, with different motives and different goals. We too easily forget that we cannot treat all migrants as one easily defined group, regardless whether we describe it with positive or negative characteristics, as a threat or as an opportunity.


Where are the women?

One of the still largely ignored aspects around the migration crisis is gender. Many people have noticed that the migrants flowing to Europe are overwhelmingly men – and mostly young and healthy men (the slightly varying statistics place the share of adult men among all asylum seekers at around 70-75%, but adding the much higher percentage of males among the youths registering as minors, the whole migrant population is even more heavily male-dominated). This is not a representative demographics of war refugees in general. The male dominance of the refugee flow has been dismissed by pointing out that first, men have a right to seek a safe haven just as anyone else, and second, they will eventually bring over their families through family reunification. These explanations, however, fail to address several important questions. Yes, men need protection too, but do they need it more than women and children? The family reunification argument ignores the fact that many of the young adult males may have no families to bring over. And even when they do, the gender problem remains. This approach leaves no chance of asylum in Europe to war widows and women who have no support of their families, who may even be fleeing from them – it has been reported that, due to Middle Eastern conceptions of “family honor”, the fate of many ISIS rape victims is to be shunned or threatened by their own families.

The recent epidemics of collective harassment of women is just one consequence of the mass influx of young males from the gender traditionalist Middle East to the gender equal Northern European countries. Some of the effects of the gender imbalance of the asylum seeker population have been brought up by Texas A&M University professor Valerie Hudson. Hudson pointed out that in countries with the largest proportion of migrants in relation to the host population, the overwhelmingly male influx has already affected the gender balance of the host countries – the gender imbalance of Sweden in certain age categories has become worse than that of China and India where gender biased family planning has been practiced for decades. This, Hudson argues, threatens all women, turning back the clock on gender equality.

It is indeed ironic that in the European Union, which has strict gender equality policies in place, obliging its member states to assess the gender impact of all new laws and budgets, has paid so little attention to the gender imbalance and an unequal division of resources when it comes to its asylum policies. In practice it has adopted a “males mostly” policy when it comes to resources used to help and support refugees.

As the effects on the mostly male refugee influx on the host countries are finally beginning to be debated, there is another side to the gender imbalance that has not received much attention this far. Through facilitating the open-border, first come first served-policy rather than looking for ways to control its external borders and increase its intake of refugees from refugee camps, the European Union has de facto favored those who are strongest – those who have the financial, physical and social resources to take the trip through Europe to the North, to pay the smugglers and to protect themselves on the way. By these choices Europe has neglected the women and children who have stayed behind in the conflict regions and camps. Even assuming that the men who receive refugee status will send for their families later, the time while they wait for their refugee status is long, ranging from a few months to a couple of years as the queues grow. During this time Europe takes care of the men, hosts and supports them, while women and children are left behind in the refugee camps, often in unbearable conditions, or in the war zones that the men are running from. Two years or even a few months can be a long time in the conflict areas. How can any place that men have to flee be safe enough for the women and children to stay?

Syrian refugees strike at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway station. Refugee crisis. Budapest, Hungary, Central Europe, 4 September 2015. Photo: Mstyslav Chernov, Wikimedia
Syrian refugees strike at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway station. Refugee crisis. Budapest, Hungary, Central Europe, 4 September 2015. Photo: Mstyslav Chernov, Wikimedia

The Darwinism of open borders

In effect the open-border policy has affected the demography of the people whom Europe has chosen to help. The more the host countries struggle to accommodate the asylum seekers arriving on their own, the less motivation they have to try help more of those left behind. Thus, while we read heartbreaking stories about Christian and Yazidi women being bought and sold, raped and killed by ISIS, the proportion of the (potential) victims of that sort of violence among the refugees in Europe is very small.

The fact that the migrants now seeking asylum in Europe are mostly men is apparently connected to the strict gender hierarchies of the Middle Eastern cultures. If families can afford to send only one member abroad, he is likely to be male simply because men and boys are valued higher, or because unaccompanied women are seen as “loose” – an attitude reflected in reports about sexual violence in refugee shelters against female co-refugees. In Iraq the government has refused to support women’s shelters because of prejudices against women unaccompanied by male guardians.

Looking at those Syrians and Iraqis Europe is not able to help – the people at the refugee camps, those with no resources to flee, the elderly and the wounded, war widows and women punished by their families, we see that the open-border policy may not have been the most humane approach. It is not a question of being pro- or anti-refugee, it is a question of priorities, and we have seen that the open-border policy has directed Europe’s resources disproportionately toward those with social, physical and material resources to make their way up North, which in practice means healthy, mostly male adults and youths. Given that many of the asylum seekers do not qualify as refugees, the irony of misplaced resources is even more striking.

Therefore, proposals of tighter border controls on Europe’s external borders are not necessarily xenophobic attempts to refuse to help those in need or to keep European nations racially or culturally “pure”. As a contrary example, Canada chose families when accepting 25 thousand refugees from Syria, and immediately offered the newcomers an unconditional entrance into the Canadian society. We can hardly blame Canada for xenophobia and racism. Europe does not have an ocean around it, so making similar choices is more challenging. First of all, stricter control of its external borders is urgently needed. In cooperation with the United Nations, we should find more ways to help refugees in camps outside and near the borders. It is important to remember that tighter border controls and stricter asylum policies do not have to mean closing up and turning our backs. Instead, this new assertiveness could be used to promote a refugee policy that is more generous to those genuinely in need.

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1 Comment

  1. says: John Egan

    You use refugee and migrant interchangeably when there is a clear distinction legally between the two. In fact, these are asylum seekers rather than migrants or refugees: refugees arrrive in their new home after having been screened and granted visas (usually, but not always, residence). Migrants is a generic category: embracing the terminology of the xenophobic right taints your entire argument. Words matter, in other words.

    There are individual country policies that explain why lone males are more likely to be asylum seekers. First, countries like Germany and Sweden have explicit guarantees for family reunification: as soon as one member of a nuclear family is granted asylum/residence, they can bring their spouses, parents, and minor siblings. Sending the strongest and leaving those who are more likely to perish during the journey makes a lot of sense. Further, these folks rely on people smugglers, so each extra person means thousands of extra €. Finally, males are a target of both government and non-government military conscription: staying in Syrian and avoiding fighting is essentially impossible.

    Europe has handled larger numbers of displaced persons before. They should screen applicants rigorously, but treat genuine asylum seekers kindly. They almost always turn out to be the hardest working, most loyal of citizens.

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