According to the OECD, “Europe will record in 2015 an unprecedented number of asylum seekers and refugees with up to one million asylum applications; an estimated 350,000 to 450,000 people could be granted refugee or similar status, more than in any previous European refugee crisis since World War II… For several EU countries, large-scale asylum inflows are a new experience. This is the case, for example, for Hungary1 and to a lesser extent for Poland and Bulgaria. Financial and technical support from other EU countries and from EU institutions is critical to enable them to respond to the emergency.”2

According to the International Organisation for Migration: “Since January 2015, 924,127 migrants, including refugees are reported to have arrived to Europe by sea out of a total 989,215 by both land and sea routes. Tragically 3,671 migrants are known to have drowned or remain missing.”

In September 2015 the Secretary General of the OECD, like many other political leaders and high officials, made a dramatic appeal about the human cost of the current refugee crisis:

“The human cost of this refugee crisis is appalling and countries need to quickly agree a fair allocation of refugees within Europe, and ensure that such vast numbers of troubled people receive shelter, food and support. It’s essential that they also address the medium and long-term policy responses to this crisis. An emerging challenge will be the integration of the many new refugees who will remain in European host countries. We need to scale up and adapt programmes so that refugees can integrate as quickly as possible in their new homes and make best use of their skills. We should all remember that migration is not a liability, but an asset. This is not a numbers game. Leaders should shift their attention from questions concerning ‘how many’ and ‘where’ to the ‘what’ of the crisis – namely, what they should be doing to integrate these newcomers into their societies and economies. They must exercise their leadership to convince the public that migrants – above all, those most in need of protection – give more than they take.”

At the same time the OECD, which has one of the most extensive research networks in the field of the economics of migration, argues that despite ample precedents, the material costs of the current crisis are difficult to evaluate:

“The past gives us only a few clues as to the economic and fiscal impacts on host nations of a sharp rise in refugees and most existing research focuses on the impact of total immigration (within which the share of refugees is usually quite small). Furthermore, many factors make the appraisal of the economic impact of the refugee crisis particularly challenging, notably: estimating the number of asylum seekers is far from easy as they are highly mobile and may be registered several times in different countries; the expected duration of stay is uncertain and will depend on how many are recognised as refugees and the enforcement of return for those who are denied international protection. […] For all these reasons it is important to foster a bold, coordinated and comprehensive policy response at the EU level in addition to policy measures in individual European countries, notably to foster the labour market integration of refugees.”

Where is the limit?

What are the limits for the number of refugees and immigrants that a country can absorb? Is it the number or proportion of foreigners in a country’s population? Such a simple rule of thumb would give truly “unrealistic results” as a comparison of Hungary and Switzerland clearly shows.

In Hungary the “foreign-born” population currently represents 4.5% of the total. Yet, the government and especially the extreme right opposition (the Jobbik Party) argue that the “boat is full” (the term the Swiss used to justify the rejection of many refugees during the Second World War) and that Hungary cannot afford more refugees and does not need more economic migrants. In Switzerland currently the foreign-born represent 28.3% of the total population. In 1999 it was “only” 21.4% – an increase of seven percentage points in about a dozen years. It is true the Swiss are “concerned”: this upward trend should not continue without interruption. However, the majority of the population condemns xenophobia and believes that asylum is not only part of the law, but also of Swiss values and traditions.

The importance of integration and assimilation

In fact, there is a broad evidence that the “absorption capacity” of a country is a function not only of numbers, but even more so of the quality of the integration and assimilation of migrants and refugees in their new host communities.

Writing about the experience of Western European countries in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the late Peter van Krieken, a great humanitarian and expert on migration and refugee issues argued: “Europe has changed and will continue to change. The change [includes] asylum, migration, integration and social cohesion, and, last but not least, the pivotal tension between the influx of both skilled and unskilled migrants including the regular and irregular ones on the one hand, and the prevailing socio-democratic welfare system in Europe on the other… Due to the substantial numbers involved, actual segregation has taken place in some of the larger cities and is taking place or is about to take place in others. This is bound to have a serious negative impact on interaction, intercultural relations and hence on trust, with all the negative consequences for the society and the economy at large. In fact, one of the (many) reasons why France and the Netherlands rejected the draft European Constitution in the course of 2005 is related to this very development.”3

At the same Webster Geneva conference where Peter van Krieken made the above statement, the present writer argued in favour of integration and assimilation: “Integration, changing identity, let alone assimilation, were neither encouraged nor facilitated [in Europe]. In fact, the objective of the ‘temporary protection’ policy of recent years was to prevent integration: integration would dilute the deterrent effect of the restrictive immigration and asylum policies and open a breach in the wall of fortress Europe. The contrast is striking between the elimination of all barriers to migration for the citizens of the EU – who do not need or want to migrate – and the keeping out or down of those who would want to come, integrate and even assimilate. In Europe there is still a fear of being invaded or diluted by foreigners who want to become full members of their host communities. Assimilation means that the newcomers are welcome to become full members of their host community. Their foreign origin will fade – it may remain a fond or dark memory – and will not affect their place in the community that will turn from ‘host community’ to their ‘own community’. Assimilation has two key dimensions: adopting the fundamental political values of the host society and adopting some of the basic common cultural components, in particular the language of the host country. Assimilation has two objectives: to serve the interests of the newcomers and to strengthen the host society. Assimilation works best in open liberal societies. The reasons for this are quite obvious. The strength and resilience of liberal societies depends on the support of responsible citizens and on a fundamental consensus on basic principles, rather than on the iron hand of an authoritarian ruler. Also, in a liberal society it is quite easy to reconcile assimilation with diversity and to maintain many features of one’s identity that are different from the other identities that can be found in the community. This diversity may include diversity of religion (religious freedom), diversity of political views (within the consensus of the community), as well as diversity of ancestry and finally the use of a second language at home or in a smaller community or region of the country.”4

Religion and immigrant integration

At the 2005 Webster conference Archbishop Silvano M. Tomasi, Permanent Observer of the Holy See in Geneva and the Vatican’s top expert on asylum, migration and humanitarian issues in general, addressed the issue of religion. His conclusions included the following:

“The new immigrants who are settled need to be incorporated into the political and the social structure of the European Union even though they may be very different religiously. In particular, how is the question of Islam going to be dealt with in this process? When the Italians first arrived in the United States they were not regarded as real Christians, because their religious practice was at odds with the very sedate Anglo-Saxon tradition. I would like to say that today in a more secularised world, even in the world of laïcité, religion plays a very important role in the new immigrant communities. The question is how we are going to handle and manage this phenomenon so that the process of integration can be healthy. Only if it is a healthy process of integration, you will have good citizens. Professor Hieronymi was referring to good citizens both as a starting point and a point of arrival. That will make for a society that is stronger, healthier, able to accept differences, and to live with differences in such a way that everybody can grow as a person and that society can function.”5

Migration and globalisation

According to Volker Turk “migration forms an intrinsic part of the human condition… And yet, today a growing number of negative connotations are associated with migration, a quintessentially human phenomenon. Migration is now often depicted in the most negative terms, such as illegal, irregular, abuse, organised crime, smuggling, trafficking, terrorism, etc.”6

It is part of our basic knowledge of history that throughout the ages “migration was a major factor shaping the world”. No one can truly imagine what the world would be like if there had been no migration in the recent or in the distant past. According to the commonly accepted definition “migrants” (voluntary or forced) are persons who live outside their country of origin (or country of birth). There are altogether about 300 million migrants in the world: a number that appears very large, yet this represents only about 3 per cent of the world’s total population.

There is a widespread realisation that a globalised world cannot function without successful migration. At the same time, there is also a significant contrast to the multilateralism and reciprocity of trade negotiations and liberalisation: immigration policy is firmly based on the interests of the potential host country, and in most cases represents unilateral, and at best bilateral policies. With the exception of the free movement (and migration) of the citizens of the European Union within the EU, there is no significant example of states delegating or reducing part of their sovereignty with respect to immigration.

The current crisis mentioned at the beginning of this article is a dramatic illustration of the political, human and social consequences of the failure of the European countries to face the (positive) fact that from a major continent of refugee producers and large scale emigration throughout most of its modern history, since the end of the Second World War, thanks to democracy and prosperity it has become a continent of asylum and of immigration.

“In today’s globalised world, with its powerful forces of competition and convergence, of standardisation and atomisation of society, of increasingly open and world-scale markets for goods, services, capital and ideas and technology, with its tendency towards shortening time horizons, the question is not so much why there is migration, what are the factors inducing people to migrate, but what are the factors of success and what are the factors of failure of migration?

The following points are elements of an answer to the preceding question:

1. the success of migration is not only in the interest of the individual migrant, but also in the common interest;

2. successful migration implies integration, assimilation, loyalty and good citizenship but also diversity and multiple identities;

3. migration in a globalised world cannot be considered as a purely national matter and its success depends on international cooperation in the same liberal spirit as is claimed in the field of trade and capital;

4. migration will continue to shape the world also in the future – it depends on us whether it will be in freedom and solidarity or in a world of conflict, new iron curtains and discrimination.”7

The responsibility of Europe

“Europe has an important role to play in upholding and strengthening the international refugee regime. The example of Europe, positive or negative, will have a major impact on the future of asylum and on the respect of the rights of refugees to protection, assistance and in the long term to integration. While European countries are concerned about the number of asylum seekers coming to Europe, the bulk of the immediate burden of humanitarian crises has fallen on regions outside Europe.

Europe has a strong, vested interest in the maintenance of the international refugee regime and in equitable immigration policies. Not only because of the long liberal tradition in Europe. But because Europe was also the birthplace of the most oppressive and murderous ideologies and political systems, of the ‘right’ and of the ‘left’, ever invented and implemented in the history of mankind: Communism, National Socialism, aggressive, murderous nationalism, political regimes that had been responsible for the persecution and death and flight of untold millions of victims.

Policies that weaken refugee protection, migration policies based on exclusion and ethnic discrimination are contrary to the values that helped create the new liberal and democratic Europe from the ashes of totalitarianism. Undermining these values, through policies of omission or commission would threaten the foundations of this new Europe, the future prosperity, security and freedom of the citizens of Europe.”8


There is a broad agreement among students of politics and international relations that values and interests drive human action. However, in turn, values and interests are largely shaped by ideas. The last 100 years witnessed some of the most violent battles of ideas in history. As virtually throughout history, in the age of unprecedented scientific and technical progress people have been forced or were willing to die for their ideas.

For the admirers of power and for “realist” theorists, time and again oppression and intolerance appeared and reappeared and seemed to be the stronger and the “realistic option”. Yet we know that in the long run the dictators, the “strong men” and their doctrines were all dead – but only after a fight and at great cost. The Western liberal model of values, ideas and institutions proved to be superior to current competitors and to all previous models.

The political paradox of the 20th century reflected also the power of the worst ideologies and the best ideas and innovations. The best and worst ideas were implemented and became, for better or worse, political and societal reality. The most cruel, destructive and inhumane authoritarian and totalitarian ideologies and regimes led to the various forms and shades of Communism and National Socialism (and Fascism). Today’s murderous situations in vast parts of the Middle East and Africa are closely linked to the misuse of religion and to ideologies of violence.

Ultimately the Cold War was won by the ideas, values and the documented link between ideas and the record of the Western Community. The freest democratic liberal societies in history that have achieved unprecedented prosperity and social progress, domestic and external collective security and perpetual peace among them, owe their “good fortune” not to luck or history or geopolitics but to the power of ideas and theories based on a combination of liberal tradition and liberal innovation. Today, once more the principal sources of the worldwide crisis are to be sought at the level of ideas: the intellectual confusion and the systematic corruption of common values, the propagation of distorted concepts for egoistic and evil purposes. Liberalism, democracy, Western values of humanism are once more on the defensive.

There are multiple threats to the “good society”: these include the revival of old ideas that had been defeated time and again, distorting and misusing good ideas, as well as new ideas and ideologies – threats from outside (from totalitarians, authoritarians and from the chaos), and threats from inside the free society. Virulent nationalism, right-wing, left-wing fundamentalism, political exploitation of religion in general, various Islamist movements, evangelicals, anti-capitalists, Tea-party movements, anti-Europeans, anti-Americans, anti- Semitism, separatists, etc., etc. Neo-Socialists (Senator George Sanders in the US or the new Head of the British Labour Party) who seek to abolish the market economy. “Conservatives” who undermine traditions and institutions and rant on conservation and social progress, the “orphans” of Marxism and of the ideology of “permanent revolution”, who are trying to destroy from the Right and from the Left the domestic and international achievements of liberal democracy.

The conclusion of this article is that it is essential to engage in this debate. Free speech, logic, knowledge and memory are the best weapons against the new attacks on the “positive achievements” of the Western world mentioned above: whether these attacks come from the admirers of the “Chinese model”, of the “Putin model”, of the “Erdogan model”, from those nostalgic for Communism or Nazism, or from fanatics who use religion and religious intolerance to achieve their political objectives, or from right-wing or left-wing fundamentalists trying to erode and destabilise our free societies from the inside, the historic record is on our side.

In the light of the gravity of the situation and of the track record of the forces of good and evil respectively in the last 100 years, the concluding question is which view of the future is more realistic: the pessimistic (authoritarian, power-centred) or the optimistic (liberal and humanitarian-centred) one? Rather than with a direct answer, this article can be concluded with two more quotes:

Ten years ago, “in a seminal article Professor Michel Veuthey argued that there is an urgent need for a universal humanitarian order: ‘The chaos prevailing or threatening to prevail everywhere cannot be ignored any longer. Could it be used as a tool for renaissance, an opportunity for collective learning and evolution, in order to find a way out of today’s impasse, to reach a new humanitarian order where the dignity of every human being would be effectively respected?’”9

Finally, an equally firm message by Yves Sandoz, a Former Senior Official and Member of the International Committee of the Red Cross and Michel Veuthey’s former ICRC colleague who said in 1999: “[…] I would like to express my deep conviction that if we are to avoid future disasters, the world has to be built around the essential values that the Geneva Conventions aim at upholding even in the midst of war. It is not the humanitarians who should become more political, but politics have to become more humane. This is essential in a world of growing population pressures, of widespread suffering and one is becoming increasingly fragile. This has to be our battle, and especially yours, the new generation.”10

1 In the first half of 2015 Hungary accounted for 13% of the inflow of 500,000 asylum seekers into the OECD countries, compared with, for example, 31% for Germany, 11% and 3% for the United Kingdom.

2 OECD Migration Policy Debates, No. 7, September 2015.

3 Peter van Krieken: “Europe: from Source to Target”, in Otto Hieronymi and Samar Hasan (eds.): Migrants and Refugees: the Challenge of Identity and Integration, The Proceedings of the 10th Annual Humanitarian Conference of Webster University, UNHCR, Refugee Survey Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 4, Oxford University Press, 2005.

4 Otto Hieronymi: “Identity, Integration and Assimilation: Factors of Success and Failure of Migration”, in Otto Hieronymi and Samar Hasan (eds.): Migrants and Refugees... See also: Sergio Marchi: “What is Migration without Integration”, in Otto Hieronymi and Samar Hasan (eds.): Migrants and Refugees…

5 Silvano M. Tomasi: “Religion and immigrant Integration: United States and European Models”, in Otto Hieronymi and Samar Hasan (eds.): Migrants and Refugees…

6 Volker Turk: “Current Migration Flows: the Task of Protection”, in Otto Hieronymi and Chiara Jasson (eds.): Europe, Refugees and International Migration, The Proceedings of the 6th Annual Humanitarian Conference of Webster University, UNHCR, Refugee Survey Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 2, Oxford University Press, 2001.

7 Otto Hieronymi and Samar Hasan (eds.): Migrants and Refugees: the Challenge of Identity and Integration, The Proceedings of the 10th Annual Humanitarian Conference of Webster University, UNHCR, Refugee Survey Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 4, Oxford University Press, 2005.

8 Otto Hieronymi: “European Values and Interests: the Need for Liberal Asylum and Immigration Policies”, in Otto Hieronymi and Chiara Jasson (eds.): Europe, Refugees and International Migration, The Proceedings of the 6th Annual Humanitarian Conference of Webster University, UNHCR, Refugee Survey Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 2, Oxford University Press, 2001.

9 Michel Veuthey: “The Need for a Universal Humanitarian Order”, Foresight, Journal of Future Studies and Strategic Thinking and Policy, Vol. 7, No. 1, Emerald Group Publishing Ltd, 2005, p. 27. This paper was presented at a 2002 Webster Conference on The Atlantic Community and the Outlook for International Order.

10 Yves Sandoz: “Human Rights and the Role of the Geneva Conventions”, in Otto Hieronymi (ed.): Human Rights, Refugee Protection and Humanitarian Action: Convergence and Cooperation, Refugee Survey Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 3, 1999, p. 94, originally quoted in Otto Hieronymi: “The Spirit of Geneva and Globalisation”, in Otto Hieronymi and Kathleen Intag (eds.), The Spirit of Geneva in a Globalised World. Proceedings of the 12th International Humanitarian Conference, UNHCR and Oxford University Press, Refugee Survey Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 4, 2007.

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