Europe’s Migrant Crisis and the Price of Prejudice


Conversations: An Interview with Professor Anu Bradford

Oct. 9, 2015

Irish Naval personnel from the LÉ Eithne (P31) rescuing migrants as part of Operation Triton. (Courtesy Irish Defence Forces.)

Irish Naval personnel from the LÉ Eithne (P31) rescuing migrants as part of Operation Triton. (Courtesy Irish Defence Forces.)

According to the International Organization for Migration, over half a million migrants and refugees fleeing from war and forced labor have arrived in Europe by sea since the beginning of the year. On September 22, EU interior ministers overcame Eastern Europe’s resistance and endorsed a Berlin-backed quota plan to distribute 120,000 refugees across the member states. In addition, Germany—Europe’s largest economy—agreed to accept 800,000 refugees this year. Professor Anu Bradford discussed the immigration debate with the Bulletin.

Columbia Journal of Transnational Law Bulletin:  Politicians, columnists, and demonstrators have classified the migrants in different ways—as refugees, asylum seekers, or economic immigrants. Why do we care about this “battle over the words”?

Anu Bradford:  It makes a difference what we call them and how we classify them because, under international law, asylum seekers—for example, Syrians fleeing from war or political prosecution—are entitled to entry to a destination country. But if you are talking about an economic migrant who is looking for a better life, then this obligation doesn’t exist. That’s why we need to distinguish between the various categories. Not everyone who is now coming to Europe qualifies for asylum. Some of them actually are economic migrants.

Bulletin:  Setting aside the EU’s affirmative legal duties toward refugees and asylum seekers, is there any other justification to the distinction?

AB:  Of course, as a legal matter we need to understand that refugees and economic migrants come to the country for different reasons. But I think it would probably be wrong, in the long term, to hold on to this division because Europe needs to let both categories in. Europe must accept refugees under international law as well as out of a moral obligation, but it also needs to let in economic migrants due to long-term demographic pressures. Europe has an aging population, so even since before the refugee crisis, before the wars around the borders, I’ve been arguing that Europe needs to be proactive in endorsing a much more open migration policy.

Depending on whose numbers you believe—economists have made different projections on how much the population will decline—Europe will be over fifty million workers short by 2050. There will be a massive need for an influx of economic migrants. So I actually think that this is an opportunity to take a long-term view and use this pool of non-economic migrants to also respond to the economic needs of Europe, going forward. In addition, normally migrants come from the least-developed countries. What’s interesting about this pool of migrants is that it comes from middle-income countries. Many are very well-educated. The Iraqis the Afghans, the Syrians—these are people who could respond to Europe’s demographic challenge. And even if they are not educated to start with, the idea of seeing this as a potential opportunity, rather than as a threat, would offer a narrative that would commit Europe to integrating these people, educating them, training them, and making sure they also serve the European labor market. So really, this is a win-win for Europe: on the one hand, it will generate goodwill by helping people seeking safe haven from a warzone; on the other it will address its economic need.

Bulletin:  Still, Europe disagrees on the desirability of the migrant influx. On the one end, the German chancellor Angela Merkel condemned anti-immigration demonstrators and proclaimed that “there can be no tolerance of those who question the dignity of other people.” On the other end, accusing Germany of “moral imperialism,” Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, and the Czech Republic denounced the quota plan. What is the source of this divergence?

AB: We should first clarify why immigration is such a difficult question for Europe. There is a fundamental misalignment between the allocation of competencies—or decision-making power—in two areas: All immigration matters, including asylum policy, are matters for the member state. There is no common European immigration policy. Each country can decide whether they take any migrants, whether they take plenty, and in which category. At the same time, there is a free movement across Europe. This is a European level policy and individual member states are all bound by it. So even if, let’s say, Italy decides to take a hundred thousand migrants, but Austria does not want any, what prevents the migrants from going from Italy to Austria? Austria says, “Look this doesn’t work—I am supposed to decide how many migrants I take. But since Italy takes them and we have no border controls between Italy and Austria, soon they are within our country. So effectively I do not have my own immigration policy.”

So that’s the fundamental misalignment that we need to start with. We need to understand that jurisdiction over immigration still vests within each member state, but free movement, mainly in the form of a Schengen agreement which has abolished the border controls, allows for visa-free travel around Europe. As a result, you can’t really have a national level immigration policy while having a free movement agreement. That free movement has now become under threat. Countries say, “We’ll start initiating border controls. We cannot handle the number of migrants, and our immigration policy is X.” That’s what Hungary says, that’s what the Czech Republic says, that’s what Slovakia says. Eastern Europe in particular has been the least willing to take in the migrants.

So why are these countries different? There are a couple of reasons. So let’s first talk about why Germany has been very generous. To start with, Germany is aging and needs a lot of economic migrants in the near future and beyond that. Many Germans understand this.  Germany’s labor market today is also not as depressed—they don’t have as many unemployed people. It’s very hard for a country that is economically struggling to extend a welcoming arm to migrants when it can’t employ its own people. Such country feels its social services are already strained. And now they would need to find money somewhere to help the asylum seekers when they can’t help the poor within their own borders. Germany does not have that problem—Germany is doing well. But I think the most important thing is that for Germany this is now an opportunity to do the right thing, to be perceived as the righteous nation that is associated with tolerance and generosity. Germany will always live under the shadow of its history, but also in the most recent episode with Greece, Germany was the hard-liner. Germany wasn’t extending solidarity. So now I think this is the reversal, in a setting where Germany just feels like it wants to take the moral high ground and be the leader who is showing its big heart. And I don’t think this is just for show, these are values—European values—a strong commitment to human rights and helping people in need. These refugees are innocent people, they are victims, and it is for Germany now to use its good position and extend a helping hand for those who need it and deserve it.

So why have Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, and the Czech Republic been so lacking in empathy? First, they are not doing as well economically as Western Europe. They are still reeling from their past. Even though they have made great strides, they feel like they can’t afford as much generosity as Germany. Second, and more importantly, they are very homogenous. Unlike Germany, which has historically integrated a lot of Turks and has a significant Muslim population by now, Eastern Europe has no tradition of immigration. It is basically a white Christian population. Since many of the refugees are Muslims, these countries fear that they cannot integrate them. There are a lot of people in their population who think that what binds us together as Europeans is Christianity. That is a very problematic stand for a European country, but it explains why countries like the Czech Republic and Slovakia only take Christian refugees.

Bulletin:  In addition to cultural and religious concerns, we hear a common economic argument that immigrants will divert employment opportunities away from citizens and burden social welfare services funded by the taxpayers. However, in your article Sharing the Risks and Rewards of Economic Migration, you show that migration can make both source and destination countries better off. Could you elaborate on your research?

AB:  Numerous studies clearly demonstrate that immigrants give a net benefit to the receiving economy, contribute more in taxes than they take in terms of social services and benefits, and cause insignificant, if any, labor displacement. Economic evidence shows that migration is a boon to receiving countries. It’s a boon today, and given the demographic crisis, it is a necessity for the European economies in the future. So there is not an economic argument to resist migrants.

There is a lot of need in both low skilled and highly skilled labor. For example, Germany does not have enough engineers. We also need to remember, these workers who get a job become consumers in the economy. They will use services, thereby creating more jobs for other people in the country. So the economic case is strong for taking the migrants both because of the fiscal side—the studies show that they pay more taxes than they take in social services, and because of the job market perspective, both short-term and longer-term.

There is also mounting evidence that sending countries can benefit from migration, primarily through remittances and “brain circulation” caused by return migration, and that these benefits exceed in most circumstances the costs associated with brain drain.

Bulletin:  What are some of challenges to Europe’s immigration question and where do you see the solution?

AB:  There’s this whole fear of cultural invasion that is very much attached to the religion and ethnic background of the migrants. Some people don’t even like to admit to the fact that they are culturally afraid, so they invoke these economic arguments which makes them sound like they are just looking after their own needs. They look after the other people in their country, and the economic well-being of the country, instead of saying “we are intolerant.” Intolerance is a hard problem to solve, but I’ve taken the stand and continue to take the stand that we need to repudiate the notion that Europe is just a Christian continent. We need to have a much more progressive understanding of how diversity can culturally contribute to enrich Europe. But it’s a hard problem, and I don’t underestimate it. The question is, how to get that message to the public? My hope is that the younger generation that is more travelled, that has been exposed to the world, will possess the mental and emotional flexibility to see the benefits of cultural diversity.

What this has reminded us is that we can have integrated market for goods, even for money, but when people start moving it becomes much more emotional—it is not just an economic debate anymore. The economic argument tells us that immigration is good for those who welcome it. It can be good on an individual level, it can be good at the level of a society. Europe in particular has a pressing long-term need to solve its demographic crisis, and there’s no other solution but immigration.

The bigger hurdle, though, is persisting fear and intolerance. This forces us to confront the question how we define what Europe is about, what its values are. Europe needs to find in itself the spirit of tolerance that will shape the continent not just economically, but also culturally. It will be hard, but at the same time I think Europe’s future depends on it. Now Europe has an opportunity to show that it practices what it preaches, and that human rights is not just about helping other white Christians. There needs to be much more discussion about how we can extend solidarity and kindness and share the wealth with people who are different from us. That will be the hardest thing.


Anu Bradford is the Henry L. Moses Professor of Law and International Organization and Director of The European Legal Studies Center at Columbia Law School. She joined the faculty as professor of law in July 2012. She is a scholar of international economic law and European Union law, and was the Visiting Assistant D’Atri Professor of Law, Business, and Society at Columbia Law School in the fall of 2011. From 2008 to 2012, she was an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Law School, where she specialized in international trade law. Before joining the University of Chicago faculty, she taught at Harvard College, Brandeis University, and the University of Helsinki Faculty of Law.

Bradford earned her S.J.D. (2007) and LL.M. (2002) degrees from Harvard Law School and also holds a law degree from the University of Helsinki. After completing her LL.M. studies as a Fulbright Scholar at Harvard Law School, Bradford practiced antitrust law and European Union law at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton in Brussels for two years before returning to Harvard for her doctoral studies. She has also served as an adviser on economic policy in the Parliament of Finland and as an expert assistant to a member of the European Parliament.

In 2010, Bradford was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. She is a member of the New York bar and is qualified to practice law in Finland.

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