At a time of aging populations, skills shortages and high global demand for labour mobility, some Western European countries are reducing their immigration levels. There are a number of reasons for this, none of which has its roots in evidence-based public policy. Instead, by and large, they are driven by short-term political and ideological considerations.

The first such driver is unemployment, in particular youth unemployment. In Spain and Greece, for instance, youth unemployment topped 50 percent last year. It is through this lens that the issue of immigration is often debated. Reducing the number of newcomers who will compete with those already having difficulty finding work is cast as a rational response to persistently high unemployment.

A second driver is misconceptions about Islam. Europe’s challenges related to an aging population, declining birth rates and labour market shortages should lead to migration as the solution. But since Europe’s migrants are largely from Pakistan, Turkey and elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East, the debate shifts quickly from “migration” to “Muslims,” with all the attendant complexity. Each country in Europe has its own history, pressures and tensions. In France, for instance, management of the integration of North African migrants is viewed as a failure. If debates there on increased migration were met with skepticism before the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January, they are likely to be even more deeply mired in it now.

A third driver is the significant gap between the perceived and the actual size of immigrant and minority groups. In the United Kingdom, for instance, Ipsos Mori surveyed respondents about the percentage of immigrants in the population. On average, they guessed the proportion was 24 percent, whereas the reality is 13 percent. The misconception was even greater about the presence of Muslims in their community. Respondents guessed that 1 in 5 people in the country is Muslim, when in reality it’s 1 in 20. In France, the gap is even larger: 8 percent of the French population is Muslim, but the perception is that Muslims make up a whopping 31 percent. It is therefore not surprising that the anti-Islamic Pegida movement in Germany originated not in a German city with a large share of migrants like Berlin or Hamburg, but in Dresden, where only a very small share of the population is either of migrant origin or Muslim.

There are other myths. For example, in the United Kingdom, people think that it is poor migrants from the European Union who are overrunning the welfare system, when in reality more Britons than poor migrants are claiming benefits in European jurisdictions.

Then there is the perception that integration in Europe has failed. I say “perception,” because in reality there are many innovations in Europe, primarily at the local level, that Canada could learn from. But the predominant images of ethnic ghettoes and the rise of a subclass of immigrant male youth who are disaffected and disengaged and pose a risk to all society have become the caricatures of what many see as failed integration.

There appears to be one exception to the downward immigration trend—Germany—and at first glance, that exception seems enormous. The Federal Statistical Office (Destatis) documented a 13 percent increase in immigration in 2013 over the previous year, bringing the number of people moving to Germany to 1,226,000. Over the same period, 789,000 people left Germany, a year-on-year increase of 11 percent. This ostensibly makes Germany the most immigrant-friendly nation after the United States. Part of this immigration is fuelled by asylum seekers as the situation in Syria worsens. But a closer examination of the numbers reveals that by far the largest block of migrants to Germany are from other EU states—as high as 60 percent of the total. It is not clear whether they can be thought of as “immigrants” in the Canadian sense—as people who come, stay and put down roots. Perhaps it is more useful to think of them as individuals who move from one province to another. To get a true comparator to the Canadian figures, therefore, one would have to look at the equivalent in Germany of permanent residents. In 2013, 189,000 applicants were granted the relevant permit in Germany.

But still, Germany stands out for its pro-immigration politics and policies. Why?

Germans more than other Europeans have read the tea leaves on population growth and labour market trends. This is because Germany has a strong institutional capacity for engaging employers and trade unions in labour force development, so there is a greater institutional and shared concern for the future of the labour market. As the gap in science, tech and engineering job applicants is projected to reach 1 million by 2020, Germans are paying attention. A further look at its immigration figures, however, suggests, that Germany is not experiencing the success that it hoped for in attracting highly skilled immigrants from non-European-Union jurisdictions. In 2012 less than 3 percent of its intake came from this cohort, notwithstanding changes introduced the same year that lowered the minimum wage level from €63,000 to €43,000 annually for immigrants wanting to work in Germany.

Notwithstanding its lack of success to date at attracting the highly skilled immigrants they had hoped to attract, there is a real desire in a certain segment of the German intellectual, political and academic elite to see Germany as the leader of a nation of immigrants in Europe. Chancellor Merkel has publicly declared that Germany is a nation of immigrants and that Muslims are an integral part of its identity. Of course, the primary reason that Germany has more progressive immigration policies today is that its economy is flourishing and its employment rates are stable. But there is an important caveat: there is no certainty this new liberalizing thrust is here to stay. Germany is not immune to rising anti-immigration and anti-Islam sentiment. Should the economic situation deteriorate significantly, a different narrative could well emerge.

In Europe mainstream parties struggle to convince voters that they understand their anxieties.

In contrast, the narrative that has proven popular in election after election in the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Sweden and the Netherlands is the one driven by the far right. Some explain the rise of anti-immigrant, far right parties as a result of the economic downturn and austerity. But as the Economist pointed out in August 2012, there could be another reason that is far more deeply ingrained: the concerns that national identity, culture and way of life are threatened or eroding. The article quotes Matthew Goodwin (Nottingham University) who has found that national identity, culture and way of life matter more to many voters than material worries. Whether in the Netherlands, with its triple-A credit rating, or in Greece, which is tiptoeing around bankruptcy, a xenophobic party can gain significant traction among the electorate. According to Goodwin, “All it needs is for a semi-competent party to pick up on these sentiments.”

Many of these far right parties have more than competently exploited fears about national identity to make their mark on the political landscape. They have successfully defined who they are against, whereas mainstream parties have struggled to convince ordinary voters that they understand and share their anxieties. At times, mainstream parties have embraced at least some of the anti–immigrant agenda of the far right in order to protect their share of the vote.

Where does Islam feature in all of this? In the United Kingdom, UKIP has linked anti-immigration views to an anti-EU stance. In Holland, Geert Wilders has linked anti-Islam positions with support of Israel, gender equity and gay rights. In Germany, the Pegida movement has linked anti-Islam views to its positions against the EU, the euro and global finance speculation, to name a few. In the Nordic region (Sweden, Denmark, Norway) right-wing parties have successfully linked concerns and nostalgia about loss of a way of life, care for the elderly and declining law and order to migration and Islam.

Public attitudes have also given confidence to the proponents of anti-Islam politics. In Germany, for instance, a 2013 survey by the Bertelsmann Foundation showed that 57 percent of non-Muslim Germans feel threatened by Islam. A striking 40 percent feel like strangers in their own country because of Germany’s perceived Islamization. The same survey found that one-quarter of Germans would like to forbid immigrant status to Muslims.

In light of these trends, Canadian decision-makers should take heed. After all, we are not immune to what is happening in the rest of the world. That said, we are protected from this European virus by virtue of a few factors.

One is that we do not have a perception of large-scale integration failure as in parts of Europe. We have immigrant role models as part of our national narrative, including authors, media hosts and two governors general. Teachers in our classrooms look more and more like the students. Home ownership rates among immigrants are strong, citizenship uptake is high, intermarriage is rising, and the children of immigrants for the most part perform well. We have our problems, but we have our successes, too.

Our particular brand of multiculturalism is deeply ingrained in our DNA.

One important difference in Canada is that immigration does not draw from one region alone. In Europe it is easy to conflate immigration from the Middle East and North Africa with Muslims. Canada’s immigrants come from all over the world. The caricature of Muslims in some parts of Europe does not cross the Atlantic. In Canada, Ismaili Muslims are one of the most successful immigrant communities.

Moreover, we have no anti-immigrant political parties. The immigrant vote counts much more in the political calculus of the nation and is heavily courted. It would be political suicide for a national party leader in Canada to say, as Germany’s Merkel once did, that multiculturalism has failed.

Finally, our particular brand of multiculturalism is deeply ingrained in our DNA. It is a policy but it is also lived experience. It is alive in our schools, city governments and community centres. At the practical level, the multiculturalism principles that have been embraced by many of our local institutions are at the heart of Canada’s success in this domain.

So while we argue about how immigration should work, where immigrants should come from and how we should qualify them for entrance into the country, we do not argue about whether we need them. That, more than anything, is what sets us apart from Europe.

Photo: iStock

Ratna Omidvar
Ratna Omidvar is an independent senator from Ontario.

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