The great migration to Europe

Ever more people are arriving on Europe’s shores, seeking new homes. What has made them come? And can they expect a welcome? Simon Wilson reports.


Civil war is driving refugees on to Europe's borders

What's behind this wave of migration?

Two broad factors push and pull. An unprecedented number of nations across the Islamic world, from Africa to the Middle East to Afghanistan, have become, or are becoming, failed states, plagued by civil war. Syria is the worst-hit: about half of its 23 million people have been forced from their homes, with four million now refugees in neighbouring countries (or further afield).

But such wars are also being waged in northeast Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, southeast Turkey, Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan. Around 2.6 million Iraqis have been displaced by Islamic State (IS) offensives in the past year. In the past 18 months, all but unnoticed by many, 1.5 million have been displaced by fighting in South Sudan.

And the pull?

Europe, for all its self-inflicted woes, remains politically stable and rich. Globalisation means that (a) more is known about life here than ever before; (b) there are settled expatriate communities acting as magnets and facilitators; and (c) Europe is easier to reach than ever, despite the grim scenes of chaos and death on the shores of the Mediterranean from Libya to Turkey's Bodrum peninsula.

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Vast numbers of people (including, for example, the family of Aylan Kurdi, the little boy whose death made headlines this week) have both the motivation to flee (in their case from an intolerable life in Kobane, Syria), and the means (in their case, an extended family already successfully settled in Canada).

How big is this migration in historic terms?

Big, but not unprecedented. In the modern period, great waves of migration have been driven by war and politics (the largest being the estimated ten million or more displaced during the Partition of India) or by poverty. Between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries, an estimated 55 million Europeans migrated to the Americas (about two-thirds to the US).

This Great Migration was, like today's, driven in part by globalisation. The duration of a typical Atlantic crossing had fallen (from five weeks in 1725 to one week by 1900); and the length of basic labour needed to pay the fare had slid from four years' wages to four weeks, making the voyage possible for many more people.

Will Europe cope?

That depends on whether current events mark the start of a new 'Great Migration' or not. So far, the countries most affected by the tumult in Syria and Iraq are their neighbours, Turkey, Jordan and, most of all, Lebanon. At the end of 2014, Lebanon, a tiny country of fewer than four million people, was taking about 10,000 Syrian refugees a day ie, as many every 48 hours as the UK proposes to take over the next five years and has seen its population swell by at least 1.2 million.

By contrast, the numbers reaching Europe remain in the hundreds of thousands, amounting (so far) to a fraction of 1% of the EU's 500 million population. Even Germany, the EU country that is most relaxed about an influx of Syrians, is looking at taking in (this year) about 1% of its population.

So Europe can relax?

Not necessarily. Germany has its historic reasons for being open to a wave of refugees, but there is also an element of enlightened self-interest: its ageing society faces the long-term prospect of a falling population; an injection of young, determined, often well-educated refugees might be no bad thing. However, the strains imposed on EU solidarity by an influx of irregular migrants through southeast Europe may prove even more destructive than the euro crisis, increasing calls for a return to closed borders.

Meanwhile, the academic Paul Collier persuasively argues that in terms of meeting our moral obligations to all displaced Syrians not just those who have made it to Greece the best thing Britain and Europe can do is to help Syrians to remain in the region. That means helping Jordan and Lebanon to foster a Syria-in-exile economy in the hope of an end to the conflict within years rather than decades.

Is climate change a factor?

Some academics believe so if they are right, all bets are off concerning the scale and consequences of future migration. Recent studies by Colin Kelley of the University of California and Richard Seager of Columbia suggest that extreme drought in Syria from 2006 to 2009 created the conditions for the current civil war, and was part of a century-long trend towards drier and warmer conditions in the eastern Mediterranean. Europe might be able to absorb a few million war-displaced Syrians and Iraqis.

But what if, for example, Mali, a country of 15 million people, becomes uninhabitable by mid-century, as some predict? The answer is almost certainly a wave of migrations, fuelled by hunger and war, that make the current one pale into insignificance.

Tackling the root causes of conflict

Battles over water will define the next wave of global conflicts,says James Fergusson, a hydrology expert who has writtenbooks on Afghanistan and Somalia. Local disputes over themisallocation of scarce water resources sparked the uprisingsin both Syria and Yemen that have morphed, so disastrously,into civil wars. In Newsweek in April, Fergusson looked at anumber of regions where battles over water in particularbetween upstream and downstream powers are likely tointensify. These include Turkey, the Middle East, Central Asia,Indo-China, and northeast Africa.

His conclusion: the Westmust focus on root causes and help with the basics goodgovernance, secure supplies of electricity and water ratherthan on "hard power" solutions, such as missiles and bombs.

Simon Wilson’s first career was in book publishing, as an economics editor at Routledge, and as a publisher of non-fiction at Random House, specialising in popular business and management books. While there, he published, a bestselling classic of the early days of e-commerce, and The Money or Your Life: Reuniting Work and Joy, an inspirational book that helped inspire its publisher towards a post-corporate, portfolio life.   

Since 2001, he has been a writer for MoneyWeek, a financial copywriter, and a long-time contributing editor at The Week. Simon also works as an actor and corporate trainer; current and past clients include investment banks, the Bank of England, the UK government, several Magic Circle law firms and all of the Big Four accountancy firms. He has a degree in languages (German and Spanish) and social and political sciences from the University of Cambridge.