Italy’s announcement that it is no longer to accept shipwrecked refugees from rescue vessels registered elsewhere is a sharp reminder that the migrant crisis that burst open Europe two years ago is far from over.
The Italian measure aims to stem the ‘unsustainable’ flow of people who were in peril on the high seas. It’s clearly designed to reignite the EU’s burden-sharing efforts. Just as important as defusing tensions between member states over accepting immigrants is the elusive question of agreeing a longer-term strategy.
Like any great crisis, that of immigration offers opportunities as well as turmoil. A handful of leading companies – mostly, but not exclusively, in Germany – are turning the influx of asylum-seekers and economic migrants to their advantage. Their responses are partly civic-minded, perhaps with an eye to the PR benefits, but in the main these employers are addressing their own manpower needs.
So far, the refugee crisis has been a rollercoaster in terms of Europe’s global image, and Germany’s in particular. The 2015-16 arrival in Europe of more than a million people fleeing from Syria and elsewhere at first provoked sympathy. But all too soon that was replaced by barbed wire and closed frontiers within the EU, consigning many to the limbo of refugee camps.
“Like any great crisis, that of immigration offers opportunities as well as turmoil”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spontaneous Wilkommen to those distressed newcomers later provoked a backlash of hostile public opinion. It has been much the same story around Europe, despite the growing number of refugees who drown while trying to cross the Mediterranean. Last year’s death toll of 4,000 would-be migrants was the highest yet, and although further deaths will again trigger sympathy the overall picture looks bleak.
When overwhelming numbers of migrants stretched resources beyond their limits, that harms the strategic argument that Europe’s shrinking and ageing population requires 100 million newcomers by mid-century. But now a growing body of employers are coming to the rescue and working to take migrants onto their payrolls.
In Germany, companies stepping in with training schemes and financial help are a roll-call of famous names – Siemens, Deutsche Telekom, BMW, Audi and Daimler to name just a few. And it’s not just businesses who are involved; Bayern Munich is at the head of 80 football teams now fundraising across Europe.
Nor is it a purely German phenomenon; other companies involved include Google, Accenture and Goldman Sachs along with retailers like Zara, H&M and the Uniqlo chain. In Scandinavia, businesses reaching out to migrants with special apprentice schemes and internships include Volvo and Ericsson in Sweden, and Norway’s energy and aluminium producer Hydro.
Official figures from Berlin help to explain this corporate zeal. In mid-2010, manpower shortages led to 400,000 unfilled job vacancies in Germany, and almost 20,000 unfilled industrial apprenticeships. Those worrying statistics have since got much worse – job vacancies have jumped to around 600,000 and unfilled apprenticeships have doubled.
“Europe badly needs new blood to fuel its economies and contribute taxes”
The demographic big picture for Germany and Europe as a whole is alarming, not just for its sheer scale but also for the way that, thanks to anti-immigration hysteria, labour shortages scarcely figure as a political issue. Germany’s active workforce of 45 million will by 2030 have shrunk to only 36 million. For the EU as a whole, today’s ratio of four workers to each pensioner will, by mid-century, be only two to one.
Market forces will push more and more employers in Europe to harness immigrant manpower, even if that involves language training and expensive investments in social integration, housing and so on. Just as important will be the messages these influential corporate voices can convey.
Populist far-right political parties have soured the public image of refugees and economic migrants. It is up to employers – most of whom can draw on sophisticated PR and advertising resources – to advance the counter-arguments. Europe badly needs new blood to fuel its economies and contribute taxes to the progressive social support mechanisms in EU countries that are the envy of the world.
The comparatively modest dilution of white, Christian Europe into a more multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society seems an affordable price to pay for underpinning, and indeed raising, our living standards. It’s time for companies and others giving much-needed support to newcomers to speak up and explain why they are doing so.
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