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Clarifying Europe’s Refugee Problem

MADRID – Even by European Union standards, the response to the so-called refugee crisis is a mess. This seems to defy logic: While the crisis is certainly a challenge, human rights – and, indeed, refugee protection – are embedded in Europe’s DNA. Moreover, the EU’s aging and demographically challenged member states need immigrants. Yet, instead of spurring solutions, the current crisis has been bringing out all that is ugly, feckless, and dysfunctional about the European project. What happened?

As is so often the case with the EU, the problem is a lack of clarity. The blurring of the lines between refugee and immigrant has made it virtually impossible to make compelling arguments in favor of proper refugee protection or more effective immigration policy. This has thwarted honest and constructive discussion, allowing those who peddle fear and nativism to gain ground.

The conflation of immigrants and refugees was probably not the result of malicious intent. Following the introduction of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy toward refugees last September, a raft of reports emerged offering economic and demographic arguments within which her decision could be framed. But such arguments actually poisoned the idea of refugee protection: The focus on the potential economic role of refugees inadvertently reinforced the view that they were, in fact, economic migrants.

Populist parties, which had already gained a foothold by playing on people’s fears of and frustrations with globalization, seized on this notion. At a time of high long-term unemployment and heavy public-debt burdens, they declared that the refugees would take jobs from Europeans or, worse, drain European taxpayer-funded social benefits.