The recent public debate around the European refugee crisis, and the letters many voters have sent to the political parties and members of parliament, are more and more resembling the situation in the early autumn of last year when the society debated passing the Cohabitation Act, writes MP and the chairman of the European Union Affairs Committee, Kalle Palling (Reform Party).
The refugee situation that has emerged in Europe does not depend on us, and hiding our heads in the sand won’t solve the problem for the society or the people concerned. Comparing the refugees who are escaping the war with same sex couples may seem arbitrary, but both have equally given rise to anger and conflict in the society.
In this case, the conflict and hatred are even more pointless because while the Cohabitation Act is within the sole competence of our politicians and society, the receiving of refugees is not. At least not when we have decided to belong to the European Union, show solidarity and be full-fledged partners there.
If we want to see Europe as a solidary and strong community of member states that can tackle the problems in each direction of the compass, be it east or south, we then have to understand the role of Estonia as a cooperation partner. These people – the refugees – would rather be in their homes, but it is not possible for them. They are escaping a war and looking for peace and the possibility to start a new life – and the alternative for them is a long, hard and hopeless life in a refugee camp.
The only option for Estonia is to show solidarity
All of our representatives in Brussels and Strasbourg, regardless of their political background, have noted that the only option for Estonia is solidarity with the rest of the EU. Without exaggeration: this can be the issue that determines the future of the EU or its dissolution. If not formally, then at least in essence. And we do not want to be left alone with our problems in the future, especially keeping in mind the recent security concerns.
But this coin also has the other side, the economic side. Most of the counterarguments depict the refugees as a mere source of expenditure – in addition to that, they are portrayed as a security threat and a threat to the survival of our nation. There is much less discussion about our low birth rate, shortage of labour and aging population. To make it simpler: if we want our pensions to rise also in the future, who will pay for it?
With zero migration, or if there was no immigration or emigration, in Europe the number of employees who are under 45 years of age would decrease by 10 per cent during the next 10 years. In Estonia, we would have around 60,000 less workers, and that is without any emigration at all.
An aging population hinders the growth of productivity in the economic sector and robots (luckily) cannot replace humans everywhere. Although mass immigration has put several EU member states under great social pressure and brought about conflicts in the society, the economists and politicians agree on one thing: Europe needs immigrants in order to guarantee the sustainability of economy and the tax money for future pensions and other social benefits.
Our emigrants should not be compared with the refugees
Immigrants, especially the refugees, should not be seen as “refugees of convenience” who would come here only to get a free ride – we all know that our system of social benefits is certainly not an attractive point in that respect. Emigration from Estonia is slowing down, but it is still one of our greatest reasons for concern. However, one should not compare our emigrants, who use their freedom of movement for development and self-realisation, with the refugees who are escaping from war, repressions and discrimination.
Speaking particularly of the refugees as a special type of immigration, it is a fact that the benefits and costs related to receiving them have been studied much less than those of other types of immigration. One of the reasons for this is that the real contribution of refugees to economy becomes clear over a considerably longer time period because when they arrive in their host country, they have much less resources and preparation for adapting.
On the one hand, it means that it is not clear how beneficial they are to the economy, but on the other hand, neither do we have grounds for claiming that they are just a burden to our economic environment and social system.
No detailed research on the impacts of immigration has been conducted in regard to Europe, but a few years ago, the International Organisation for Migration published a research paper on the impact of refugees on the economy of Australia. This paper busted several myths and stereotypes connected with the refugees.
The myth of uneducated, illiterate refugees
Many of our politicians and opinion leaders have described the refugees as illiterate, uneducated, lazy and violent. In reality, around 40 per cent of the refugees have finished high school and 20 per cent have university education, often they just do not have relevant documents to prove it, and they land on jobs where their skills go to waste and which do not motivate them.
The Australian experience shows that in comparison to the locals, the employment rate is lower among the first generation refugees but among the next generation, the employment rate is higher at each level of education.
The same research also indicates that the refugees are very entrepreneurial as well as successful: they are especially active in establishing small and medium-size enterprises, and the percentage of self-employed people is also higher among the refugees. Many refugees had been successful business people in their former homeland, and with the new perspective and attitudes they have brought to their host country, it is perhaps even easier for them to find their own niche on the market than it is for the locals.
Support to the immigration of refugees should partially proceed from their earlier work experience and language skills, because these are the things that ensure their easier integration into the society and the economic space. The example of Denmark has shown that enterprising immigrants also give an impetus to less-educated locals to contribute to educating and training themselves in order to be competitive on the labour market.
Quotas will not take us further
In Estonia, we should think of how to implement our legislation and institutions so that the transition period would be as painless and effective as possible, both from the standpoint of the refugees and the state. In the negotiations with the European Commission, we have honestly admitted that today our readiness for receiving refugees is almost non-existent; we simply have not been active in this issue.
Forced quota will not take us further, but this does not mean that we should not contribute to the readiness to voluntarily receive the number of war refugees that is similar to the original quota. But this requires the smooth cooperation of very many institutions, the state, local governments and the third sector.
As in Finland, the background check of the war refugees and other necessary procedures should be conducted already before their arrival in Estonia, so that the refugees would have the possibility to start with their new life from their very first day here. The Estonian Unemployment Insurance Fund has the know-how and experience in finding employment for people. It is then necessary to find housing in as many local governments across Estonia as possible, and, naturally, to teach the language. The best precondition for learning the language is motivating work in an Estonian-language environment.
A stimulus to the economy
We should be aware that we will receive refugees in any case, let their number be 10 or 1,000. We must contribute to the readiness to integrate them into our economic space, because if we learn from good examples, the refugees would not be an item of expenditure, but a possible new stimulus to our economy.
The rural regions that are far from the hubs need working hands and new breath in the communities so that the local life would not expire. The refugees who look for peace and a stable environment may be at least a partial solution to marginalisation of certain areas in Estonia, and to the problem of competitive businesses finding employees in rural regions.
All that we need for the successful receiving and integrating of refugees is to modernise our system – to reduce bureaucracy, make language teaching more effective and help them find a place in our society. Let’s find them a place among the Estonians and spare the future from today’s hostilities.
If our attitude toward the refugees is rejection, we also reject the talents, “refugees of convenience” and tourists, whom we usually look forward to receiving. Hatred and unfounded opposition to all that is new and unfamiliar is anything but attractive. The choice is between being an open country or not, and there are no exceptions here. Or should we implement a new image project, “#NotWelcomeToEstonia”, to replace the original slogan, “Welcome To Estonia?”. I disagree.
Cover: Hundreds of refugees and migrants aboard a fishing boat moments before being rescued by the Italian Navy. Photo: The Italian Coastguard/Massimo Sestini. The opinions in this article are those of the author.