The principal argument, to my knowledge, that Europe ought to take in refugees from Syria (and other war torn countries) is a moral one. The refugees are innocent victims of brutal wars, the progressives argue, and wealthy European countries have a moral imperative to accept them, house them, and meet their demands.

I have yet to hear a Realpolitik reason why Europe ought to take in refugees. Is there such a reason?

To make it absolutely and unequivocally clear what I'm asking:

How exactly is it in the interest of the peoples of Europe to accept millions of culturally dissimilar refugees from the Middle East and Africa? For the peoples of Europe, do the benefits, if there are any, outweigh the risks?

I am not asking why regulated, legal immigration in controlled quantities is in the interest of the host population. There are "realistic" arguments for this (e.g., compensating for declining birth rates, economic growth). Rather, I am referring strictly to the massive and rapid influx of asylum seekers who have came to Europe over the past two years in the so-called "refugee crisis".


8 Answers 8


First let's take a look at the definition of the word Realpolitik:

Politics based on practical and material factors rather than on theoretical or ethical objectives

Under that definition there are two possible reasons:

  • Avoiding a situation where European soldiers/border guards shoot unarmed men, women and children
  • Helping prevent further destabilization in Turkey, Libya and the Balkans due to the influx of refugees

There are absolutely no other Realpolitik benefits in accepting refugees as compared to regular and fully controlled immigration routes. There are literally hundreds of millions of people who would like to immigrate to the EU, so the European governments can take their pick in finding the most talented/hard-working people for any imaginable position. Likewise the EU could easily follow America's refugee resettlement programs and accept a limited number of fully vetted refugees, in order to satisfy the moral question of helping people at war.

If you look deeper into the current immigration crisis you will face the following truths:

  • The European border is extremely long and extremely hard to police effectively.
  • Even if the border guards do intercept someone along the way, it is generally difficult to send them back to where they came from, since this requires the cooperation of the neighboring countries. Before the Qaddafi regime collapsed a lot of this dirty work was carried out by Libya, for example. But right now Libya is in a state of civil war, so it's hard to cooperate effectively.
  • Once someone has landed on European shores it becomes even more difficult to return them to their country of origin, at the very least because people can easily throw out their documents and completely hide their identity.
  • Since you cannot realistically deport most people once they've landed on shore, the only way to effectively shut down the current borders is to construct a "reverse Iron Curtain", where anyone attempting to enter the EU without authorization would face a harsh demonstration of lethal force from the border guards.
  • The vast majority of Europeans (even the majority of anti-immigration parties members) are against any actions that may have parallels to the genocidal war crimes of Germany during World War II. And the use of lethal force against unarmed immigrants draws strong parallels to the horrors of Nazi policies - we generally accept that capital punishment is unacceptable regardless of the crime.
  • Even if the EU somehow managed to completely halt the influx of refugees to it's own territory, they would simply end up in the surrounding countries. Turkey and others are already over-strained by the numbers they've had to accept and merely sending in foreign aid won't resolve all the tensions. Likewise nobody wants a situation where Turkey is using lethal force to expel refugees back to Syria, as that would pressure Europeans to intervene even more directly. Keeping the neighbors stable and open for trade is important for any country.

Therefore the European governments are stuck in a difficult situation with no single, magical solution. Various actions are undertaken by European leaders, such as restricting NGO rescue operations, signing a new anti-immigration deal with Libya, sending immigrants back to Turkey, building a fence on the Schengen border, relocating immigrants within the EU, and so on. Whether or not they will be truly effective is an open question, however the basic problem of handling uncontrolled immigration will always remain on the table while operating within the constraints I've mentioned above.

It should also be mentioned that Europe's leaders are very much acting in terms of Realpolitik despite what anti-immigration activists might have you believe or what the leaders themselves might say on TV. No country in Europe is making it easier for refugees to get to their territory and all of them are happy to deport people abroad whenever the circumstances allow for it. The only real difference between Japan (which is hailed as a homogeneous heaven by nationalistic parties) or Australia (known for its maritime border protection policies) and the EU is that European politicians maintain a facade of supporting the right to asylum. Otherwise their practical policies are very much alike.

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    Well I think you yourself provided another benefit in our recent discussion: Avoiding further destabilisation in Turkey, the Balkans, etc. I would say that this is probably the major Realpolitik consideration, long before not killing women and children (which we are actually condoning btw) as that's the kind of things meek democratic government care about, not really something associated with Realpolitik.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Aug 28, 2017 at 14:53
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    @Relaxed who is condoning killing women and children? European politicians? Commented Aug 28, 2017 at 14:56
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    @Relaxed 1) yes, it's not a choice that Europe (or any country) has, merely a theoretical comparison to OP's proposed alternative 2) The US is sort of able to do it through its visa quotas system, although they do have a huge number of people entering illicitly as well. Commented Aug 28, 2017 at 15:05
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    As for destabilization in Turkey - my thinking is that should "dirt hit the fan", Turkey will resort to the use of lethal force to expel people back to Syria. And then we are back to the same root reason for why Europe is trying to prevent such a situation. However I will add this to my answer Commented Aug 28, 2017 at 15:07
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    The US goes very far in trying to do it, including with quantitative restrictions on family reunion (which wouldn't pass muster with human rights courts in Europe) but they have illegal crossings, refugees from Central America, cap-exempt H1B visa and the like.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Aug 28, 2017 at 15:17

The right to asylum is an inherently moral issue, and removing that aspect of it is nonsensical.

But as that is your question: Ignoring the countless moral arguments, there are a couple of realpolitik benefits that are sometimes named.

Direct benefits to the country taking refugees:

  • Increased economic growth (German source): Refugees do not save up any of the money that is spend on them. Instead, it goes directly into the economy. It's the same argument that is sometimes applied to raising the minimum wage, increasing the social safety net, etc. (the validity of such an economic measure is outside of the scope of this answer; note that this isn't the same type of growth that you excluded).
  • Job Creation (same source as above): A large number of refugees need a large network of support; this can among others create work for teachers, social workers, police, etc.
  • Human Capital (again a German source, sorry about that): While refugees are on average not as qualified as natives, they are motivated and willing to learn and work. I know you excluded this point as well, but the IAB specifically sees a "substantial potential" which can lead to "high returns on the labor market". At the same time, the IAB notes that the sort of positions refugees are likely to fill do not conflict with positions natives would take.
  • Diversity (again, German): Large corporations who work internationally need workers who know the language and culture of those countries.

Indirect benefits:

  • It stabilizes the region where refugees originate and prevents the rise of resentment and extremism (As @Denis de Bernardy has noted)
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    Any economic argument is unsatisfying, since 87% of the "refugees" do not work.
    – user5904
    Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 15:46
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    @MathematicsStudent1122 The "increased economic growth" point doesn't depend on employment at all. The "Human capital" argument does. Here, we are using the same source (the IAB). You quote one of their stats, but fail to consider their prognosis.
    – tim
    Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 15:53
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    Note that "87% of refugees do not work" may be true @MathematicsStudent1122, but it's also misleading. As the very article you link reports: "refugees who arrived last year and in January 2016, 13 percent are in work. Many newcomers are still in the process of getting asylum applications assessed and so have limited access to the labor market". A more "honest" study would look at refugees who have been in Germany over a longer timespan (as the 87% number is just for people who have been in Germany for a year, which is very short), and are legally allowed full access to the labour market.
    – user11249
    Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 17:07
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    @Carpetsmoker I definitely agree that better sources are always, well better. But these are reputable German newspapers/media. Regarding the economic benefit, the link references an analysis by the Deutsche Bank. I think for a broad question such as this, it's good enough as it gives an overview over the issue; details of individual points could better be elaborated in a separate question (although please feel free to add more sources here or in a separate answer).
    – tim
    Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 17:36
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    @MathematicsStudent1122 I guess if you are far enough to the right, everyone else is left-leaning. In reality, Die Welt is a right-wing newspaper, reuters and ntv are centrist.
    – tim
    Commented Aug 27, 2017 at 19:07

TL;DR: Europe is a) merely being pragmatic about the situation and b) acting in its long-term self-interest.

First off, keep the numbers in perspective. However massive the recent influx of migrants looked to European eyes, the scale of the problem is even larger. Arab countries are dealing with an order of magnitude more migrants than Europe.

Next, consider a (not so) alternative universe where countries don't accept asylum seekers.

This would mean refugee camps set up at the border of the originating country. Until their situation is regularized, refugees aren't allowed work legally. The only thing they can do is sit in the camp all day and rely on food donations etc. Wars can last a long while, so this untenable situation can last for years on end. (In even worst case scenarios, refugees also lose their nationality.)

In a refugee's shoes, would you try to seek asylum somewhere in order to move on and build a new life, or would you be satisfied with just sitting there, doing nothing, with no prospects nor future? I think it's reasonable to imagine most people picking the former. What more, the refugees aren't in this situation by choice; those who drove them away by fighting a civil war forced their hand. So it's reasonable to think that accommodating these asylum seekers somehow is the pragmatic (to say nothing about moral) thing to do.

Lastly, note how long-term refugee camps have bred resentment and extremism in the past. The alternative to migrants, in other words, is breeding grounds for extremists - i.e. something no one wants. The West is as such better off when asylum seekers are being welcomed somewhere.

In practice this means footing the bill (like the US has been doing) or being reasonably welcoming to those that reach its borders (like Europe has been doing, but also Syria's neighboring countries and elsewhere).

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    I think most of this doesn't answer OPs question, which is about the non-ethical reasons for this (granted, it's a really bad question, as the right to asylum is an inherently ethical question). You might want to highlight your last point, as it's actually about European self-interest.
    – tim
    Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 8:17
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    @tim: OP narrows down the question to the realpolitik indeed but the introduces and wraps it with right-wing talking-points which, I think, must be addressed as well. The reason is that not doing so invites answers like o.m.'s, which basically conjure up would-be explanations out of thin air. The more level headed answer, I think, is that Europe is a) merely being pragmatic about the situation and b) acting in its long-term self-interest. Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 8:31
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    @JonathanReez: because extremists from outside your borders can strike within them. Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 9:01
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    @DenisdeBernardy they can, but it's a lot easier to protect yourself against external threats Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 9:02
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    @Trilarion: If the wikipedia page on Syrian refugees (first link) is anything to go by the US has contributed $4.6 out of $17 billion of financial aid in 2015. It's on par with what the EU contributed if you include its individual countries, though nowhere close to Turkey's $8 billion of contributions. Commented Aug 30, 2017 at 8:45

There are several factors at work.

  • Much of Europe has a low birth rate and an aging population. It needs more young people when the currently working generation heads to retirement homes. This calls for a "selfish" immigration policy, letting in engineers, nurses, etc.
  • After WWII, a ruined Germany took in some 12 million refugees from the East, mostly ethnic Germans. They went to work together with the locals, with the help of the Marshall Plan, to rebuild Germany and to create the "Wirtschaftswunder". There are two different lessons one might draw from that. One would be that when refugees get a chance to work, they will work. The other would be that when Germans get a chance to work, they will work. The theory that Germans are somehow "superior" is pretty much debunked these days.
  • The refugee situation on the borders of Europe threatens to overwhelm those societies. A domino effect of failed states is not in Europe's best interest. Perhaps the most effective way to handle this is to pay for refugee camps in the region, not in Europe itself, but when such camps last for a long time this brings many problems.
  • A different argument is that Europe learned the lessons of the pre-WWII period. Postwar leaders and populations swore that something like the MS St. Louis would not happen again. Is it in the self-interest of the current European people to keep this promise? Depends on what kind of society they want to live in.
  • On your point #2 - both of these lessons are naive. The proper lesson is probably something like "when people get a chance to work on rebuilding their home country, they do". If the same Germans had been displaced to, say, Turkey, the outcome might have been very different.
    – Tom
    Commented Mar 14, 2018 at 14:08
  • @Tom, consider what displaced Germans did in Chile and Argentina.
    – o.m.
    Commented Mar 14, 2018 at 17:16

German population is declining. They need at least 100k immigrants a year by 2060 to slow down the process. In 2060 People over 65 will make up 30% of the population.

Germans themselves can't fill in the gap. With birthrate about 1.4 child per woman since 1970s they won't have enough people. In 1970, 100 woman gave birth to 70 girls, in 2005 that 70 women gave birth to 50 girls, in 2040 50 women gave birth to 35 girls and so on.

Without immigration in 2060 one working person will have pay for one pensioner, health care, social benefits and the rest of government infrastructure. That's impossible. Merkel invited the immigrants on purpose, just too many people came. Humanitarian arguments are just propaganda.

This is a serious problem. Let's take as an example age pyramid in Germany in 2005 and focus on people age 35-45 and compare it against age 0-10. In 2030 the first group will be still alive but retired, they should be replaced by group 0-10. It won't happen, there is a 6000k gap and this won't change unless Germany would integrate 6000k immigrants. Age piramid Germany 2005

Only Arab countries can fill in the gap. Here is the same age pyramid for Egypt in 2005.

enter image description here

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    I'm not the one who downvoted but to be honest the "declining population catastrophe" myth is more an argument made up to people to accept immigrants that will come anyway than a real reason for making people immigrating. If migrants were wanted that badly, then we'd pick wealthy and skilled workers from other countries (like back when colonisation was a thing), not refugees.
    – Bregalad
    Commented Aug 28, 2017 at 8:19
  • @Bregalad who says it is not happening. But you need 500k a year until 2030 to balance the population decline. You won't find that many people anywhere except Arab countries.
    – user14816
    Commented Aug 28, 2017 at 9:14
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    @Sjoerd first of all 6 million is unrealistic, but probably 2-3 million is needed . Secondly they will grow old in 2060, no one plans that much ahead, also who says they will get citizenship? did turkish people get it?
    – user14816
    Commented Aug 29, 2017 at 6:13
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    "Only Arab countries can fill in the gap." That statement seems to be a bit unmotivated. Why Arabians, not Africans, Asians, Latino-Americans, Europeans or a mixture of them all? In truth, probably anyone can fill the gap, if the gap needs to be filled. Commented Aug 30, 2017 at 8:33
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    @Sjoerd USA encourages immigrants to keep their heritage, Germany wants to kill it
    – user14816
    Commented Sep 5, 2017 at 6:33

I have yet to hear a Realpolitik reason why Europe ought to take in refugees. Is there such a reason?

Sure, there are quite a few.

  • Taking in refugees adds to the workforce which may have positive economical effects
  • Taking in refugees may add to the knowledge of the intelligence agencies by the availability of first hand reports and language skills
  • Taking in refugees may prevent really ugly scenes and images at the border demoralizing the European population potentially disrupting it (somewhat related to morale)
  • Taking in refugees eases the migration pressure from the areas of crisis potentially lowering the severity of the crisis which may result in less military intervention or help necessary
  • Taking in refugees might prevent a more forceful migration movement, a border that is somewhat penetrable might hold longer overall

You see, there are quite a few selfish issues regarding taking in refugees although it's doubtful they overall add to a positive value. My guess is that the morale arguments are still the main motivation behind.

Please note that some of these selfish reasons may also be achieved by intentional, directed immigration.

  • The first two reasons could also be achieved with regular, fully vetted immigration, so they don't really count. Commented Aug 30, 2017 at 10:53
  • @JonathanReez That is true, but I would still count them because just because you may achieve something in an alternative way doesn't mean this way is not advantageous for you anymore. Maybe by taking in available refugees you just get more advantages at the same time than refusing refugees and promoting regular immigration. The question was not centered on competition between regular, fully vetted immigration with refugee immigration anyway (which would be an interesting topic IMHO). Commented Aug 30, 2017 at 11:03
  • Yes, but denying entry to refugees would have absolutely no effect on controlled immigration and you would therefore continue to get the same benefits without any of the risks. As another example: you can certainly quelch your thirst by ordering sparkling water at a high priced restaurant, but it doesn't mean such a manner of drinking would be prudent. Commented Aug 30, 2017 at 11:12
  • @JonathanReez "...denying entry to refugees would have absolutely no effect on controlled immigration..." Of course it has, or better it may have. After all controlled immigration is controlled. So you could have something like an upper limit for both and then fill the demand with either of them, prioritizing whatever way you want. At least I remember this was discussed here at some point. Commented Aug 30, 2017 at 12:10
  • What I'm trying to say is: if you need people for a given economical task, you can simply issue them regular visas through a fully controlled process while completely denying entry to all refugees. Therefore the positive effects on the economy are a delusion. Commented Aug 30, 2017 at 12:14

First, policed borders are a relatively recent innovation, they became much more common after WWI; second, Muslims are hardly alien to Europe, they are native to large parts of the Balkans, of course there is the modern migration into Western Europe in the 20C, they account for roughly 20 million citizens, around 4% of the population; were another 5 million to immigrate that would only push up the percentage by another percentage point.

The realpolitik answer is that nations have treaty obligations, and in this case it is the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, and the 1967 Protocol that amended it. The '51 Convention was primarily constructed to protect European Refugees in the wake of WWII and limited itself to those, the 1967 Protocol applied to refugees "without geographic limitations"; currently 148 nations are party to the Convention & Protocol, with India & Saudia Arabia being the major abstainers. The Convention described refugees as:

A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or, who not having a nationality and being outside the country of his habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fears, unwilling to return to it...

It doesn't concern itself or cover economic migrants. Given that the situation alluded to, is more or less, the outcome of the destabilisation of the Middle East by the USA led 'War on Terror' - that is the Invasion of Iraq and it's consequent aftershocks, one could say that there is an additional moral burden for the West to bear in mitigating its effects.

The treaty is legally binding, however there is no monitoring mechanism to enforce compliance or endorse sanctions; the Convention itself specifies that complaints should be referred to the International Court of Justice.

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    Treaties can be amended, cancelled, or simply ignored. E.g. the Dublin protocol, which requires that refugees in the EU ask for asylum in the first country they enter, has been ignored for the last few years.
    – Sjoerd
    Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 16:13
  • @Sjoerd The Dublin system (it's not a “protocol” but originally a convention, now a regulation) requires no such thing.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Sep 2, 2017 at 8:28
  • @Relaxed You didn't dispute it was ignored, which was my point.
    – Sjoerd
    Commented Sep 2, 2017 at 8:36
  • @Sjoerd It's not exactly ignored, countries are still issuing requests and some are honored. But it certainly is not working as intended, no dispute about that. Your characterization of it is still widely inaccurate and distressingly common which was my point.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Sep 2, 2017 at 8:42

Because some people want to avoid war at any cost.

Stopping refugees requires the use of force. As non-lethal force works for a limited time only, at some point lethal force will be required. And many people do not want that kind of force to be applied.

They judge the cost on short time frame - applying lethal force - greater than the cost on a long time frame. A.k.a. the "apres nous le deluge" approach.

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    I don't know about you, but I'd rather not live in a country where the border guards shoot starving children. Morals aside, one day I'll be old and doddering, and who knows that they will do to me once they get into the habit of shooting "useless mouths" ...
    – o.m.
    Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 8:14
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    @JonathanReez, I disliked the last sentence."After us, the flood" implies that there the problem should be solved with measures which are painful on the short run, but for the best in the long run. I don't think so, because the proposed solution destroys the ethical framework of society.
    – o.m.
    Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 8:22
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    And many people do not want that kind of force to be applied EU already uses "lethal force" in Iraq, Syria, Libya etc. And as refugee camps are also situated outside of the EU, I see no reason why it's a problem. Libyan government (at least one of them) had already asked for finance for securing such camps. If any problems arise, they can use force themselves, or ask for additional support against "terrorism". No one cares how many people die in Libya every single day.
    – Matt
    Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 10:02
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    @JonathanReez, Europe desperately needs a more sane immigration policy. Right now we're effectively taking those who are desperate and determined enough to brave the crossing. That's still better than ignoring the demographics.
    – o.m.
    Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 15:47

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