Changing the Face of Europe: The Great Migration, Part 1

In the last decade, immigration has accounted for more than half of the population increase across Europe. The Office for National Statistics reported that EU member states are recipients of “large-scale” immigration citing that 54% of the increase of the UK population between 1991 and 2012 was due to the direct contribution of net migration.

This great migration has created a demographic revolution, rapidly changing the face of Europe and giving the UK the fastest-rising percentage of ethnic minority and foreign born populations. Declining birthrates, coupled with this growing immigration, marks the end of ethnic homogeneity for Europe's traditional nation-states. Professor David Coleman of the University of Oxford hypothesizes that based on current trends European populations will become more ethnically diverse, with the “possibility that today’s ethnic majority will no longer comprise a numerical majority.” 

Europe’s migration crisis has reached new heights as tens of thousands migrants fleeing raging wars, terrorism and poverty pour in from Asia, Africa and the Middle East seeking refuge in European countries. Illegal migration has an enormous human cost, with hundreds dying due to drowning each year in sea crossings aboard overcrowded and substandard vessels. Frontex, the European Union border agency, reported an increase in the use of rubber boats, mostly by people from sub-Saharan countries, on what it described as the “perilous” journey to reach the Canary Islands or cross the Mediterranean. Last year, some 219,000 refugees and other migrants crossed the Mediterranean, and at least 3,500 lives were lost, the UNHCR reports. In 2013 the total reaching Europe via the Mediterranean was much lower, about 60,000.

Upon arrival migrants typically head for asylum rich countries such as Germany and France.  2014 Eurostat figures showed Germany received about 90,000 refugees of which only 40,000 received asylum. France reported the second highest influx with over 70,000 migrants of which less than 20,000 received asylum, followed by Sweden and Italy with 70,000 immigrants of which 50,000 received asylum.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that more than 21,000 migrants have reached the Italian coast between the start of the year and mid-April. The UN refugee agency UNHCR reported that so far in 2015 a total of 36,390 migrants had reached Italy, Greece and Malta by sea. The largest migrant group by nationality in 2015 is Syrians - 8,865 so far. Then come migrants from Eritrea (3,363), Somalia (2,908) and Afghanistan (2,371). Many of the others are sub-Saharan Africans.  Immigration on this scale changes everything, and integrating minorities into European society is perhaps one of the most important challenges facing the European Union. 

Multiethnic society does not come easily to Europe. Until recent reforms, many European countries like Germany defined citizenship through ethnicity rather than birthplace or residency, leaving immigrant-born natives without a true sense of belonging. France has long embraced a more inclusive notion of citizenship, but many French continue to distinguish between citizens of French stock and others. This mindset coupled with the recent economic downturn has exacerbated widespread ethnic segregation, with minority immigrant communities facing disparaging challenges of racial discrimination, unemployment, violence and poverty.

The resulting social and economic strains have caused contention among policy makers and politicians. The politics surrounding immigration are complicated, and these issues have been increasingly affected due to the growing significance of the migrant vote. One of the many quirks of European electoral process is that immigrants are allowed to vote in local elections and European Parliament elections as long as they are European Union Nationals. Otherwise they must obtain citizenship, which is a lengthy process that takes about 2 years, in addition to 5-10 year residency requirements in countries like Spain, England, Italy and France. However, in the UK, immigrants who are Commonwealth citizens from any of the 54 independent sovereign states, including Australia, Canada and India - can register on the electoral roll upon arrival in the UK as long as they have an address.

A 2015 study from The Migrant's Rights Network (MRN) estimated that just under four million foreign-born voters across England and Wales were eligible to vote in the 2015 May General Election. The study also highlighted growing concerns about new power bases, BME coalition building, and increasing support for Labour from immigrant communities. Furthermore, these findings indicate the significant potential influence of legal migrants on British elections and have reignited the age-old argument of whether non-citizens should have the right to vote in general elections.

It is arguable that based on pure populations growth, Europe will need to address not only voter participation status but also the ability to appeal to such populations in a means of addressing their issues and concerns that impact such participation.

This is Part 1 on a series of articles addressing migration and its impact on European politics from the perspective of Donald Jones, President of D.A. Jones & Associates.

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