The European Union faced a dramatic increase in asylum-seekers from the Middle East in 2015. More than 1 million asylum seekers and migrants reached the European Union by sea and land in 2015, in irregular flows, particularly through Turkey and the Balkans, and often headed further towards Central and Northern Europe.
Even more interestingly, a large amount of this flow has been Iraqis seeking asylum in Finland and Syrians in Sweden. These Nordic countries are less well-known as asylum countries and are geographically, culturally, and climate-wise much more distant to the Middle East. However Sweden is the European Union #1 per capita for entering Syrians and Finland is the European Union #3 per capita for Iraqis. The remote Scandinavian country of Sweden received over 160,000 refugees in 2015, threefold to a typical year, and Finland received over 20,000 asylum-seekers from the Middle East only, which is seven times more normal figures.
The “push” factors from the Middle East have come to an acute head
In the traditional push-pull model of international migration, costs and benefits of migrating are determined by push factors of conditions at the origin and pull factors of prospects at the destination.
It is evident that ISIS and the ongoing warfare in many Middle Eastern countries make life intolerable and that persecution happens frequently. This leads many to seek refugee status and apply for asylum. However, many less dramatic societal factors have been intensifying in the Middle East that are also contributing to the sky-rocketed asylum-seeking quantities.
According to one of the foremost population scholars, Wilbur Zelinsky, actors reach rational decisions “whether and whither” to emigrate on the basis of relative known costs and returns (tangible and non-tangible), subject as always to various inertial anchors. Migration occurs when the net present expected value of migrating is positive.
More practically, according to a recent analysis by the labor economist Martin Kahanec and his study group, better labor opportunities, political or economic climate, but also social networks abroad are important push and pull factors.
First of all, in the Middle East, the most acute and compelling push factor deals with the heightened generalized societal misery. The current suppression of Sunnis in parts of Baghdad, the encirclement of Kurds by ISIS in Northern Iraq, and the oppression of the Yesidi minority in Northern part of Syria are only the tip of the iceberg. Societal problems encompass a wide range of issues relating to discrimination and social exclusion, which result in a plethora of further challenges faced by particular groups in many areas of public and private life. Such problems have been there for decades and are now coming to a head.
From both a sociological and practical political view, one may add to the societal misery the importance of relative deprivation. Relative deprivation is the lack of resources to sustain the diet, lifestyle, activities, and amenities that an individual or group are accustomed to. In other words, it is not only a question of the new “bad,” but it is also about the lack of the former “good.”
A second amplifying factor in the Middle East is unemployment. In a recent mathematical model by economist Ilse Ruyssen and her research group, typical factors that affect asylum seekers are income possibilities and (un)employment rates in both the origin and the destination country, which together determine the expected wage differential.
Restricted access to the labor market (or a complete lack of such access) inevitably leads to lower financial prospects and ultimately poverty. Discrimination often prompts unemployment, which, in turn, further exacerbates social exclusion.
One of the best-known migration scholars, Everett S. Lee, even considers labor and income as the cause “primus inter pares” in migration, hinting about the dominance of the economic motive in all migration.
Third, the propensity for push has to do particularly with the modernization process of a given country. In the “early transitional society,” fertility rates are somewhat higher than in more advanced societies. What is significant, however, is diminishing mortality: these two factors lead to population growth. Unless the economy increases in a similar fashion, there is a stock of many potential emigrants in the job market.
Both the lagged migration flow and the migrant stock have a strong positive impact on current migration; the former indicating dynamic effects stemming from the process by which expectations about future earnings are formed and updated while the latter indicates network effects.
Most Middle Eastern countries face major population growth with declining mortality. According to the United Nations, in both Iraq and Syria, there have for long been many more births than deaths, with many families having a relatively large number of children (about four on average). Every year, there are about 600,000 more people in Iraq than the previous year. In the past, infant mortality was high, but this is no longer the case. Similarly, Syria has been considered a rapidly growing country in the area, growing over 2 percent in 2009, and growing from just 6 million in 1971 to its current population of 22 million. No earlier than in very recent times, the population growth has stopped, due to increasing emigration.
The shrinking social and economic infrastructures cannot stand such population increases, and emigration is a natural consequence.
The “pull” factors in today’s Scandinavia have traditionally been strong
How about the “pull?” Why did Finland and Sweden become such significant destinations, although they are far from the Middle East with a different and inhospitable climate, both physically and mentally?
The pull factor is indeed, according to many scholars, considered an even stronger incentive than the push. Zelinsky argues that the migratory processes in question tend to accelerate in spatial and temporal pace with time. An apparent reason is the steady accumulation and intensification of causative pull factors and because of information transferred from more advanced to less advanced regions.
First, the information about Finland and Sweden in the social media has indeed made this migration flow acute. The main reason lies in the manipulated and downright false information about Finland and Sweden as Wonderlands. This idealistic image has been created by rumors and manipulated information transmitted via social media
This is clearly a rather acute, manipulated “pull” factor. Although often regarded as “the best country in the world,” Finland has actually been in an economic downturn for several years. Sweden, typically considered as the mother and father of global social welfare and universal humanitarianism, nevertheless currently has the xenophobic Sweden Democrat party which has made the atmosphere for further immigration very hostile.
Second, according to the economist Andres Solimano, primary determinants of migration lie in the economic gains for the migrant and his or her family. These economic gains are often approximated by wages, benefit and income differentials, and purchasing power between the origin and destination countries. Other important factors include the availability of social services and housing, personal safety, and other indicators of the quality of life and human development.
According to the legendary pioneer of political economy Adam Smith, “migration is a balancing factor between labour supply and demand in different locations.” The mainstream neoclassical microeconomic theory calculates the assessment of individualized costs and gains associated with migration as benefits achieved for living— be it salaries, monetary or other benefits. In other words, migrants aim at maximizing their incomes.
One looks at Finland and Sweden for one particular point: allowances and benefits in the asylum process have traditionally been higher than in other European countries. During the asylum process in other EU countries, alimentation in the provided accommodation is compulsory, and only a pocket money of 20-80 euros per month is provided.
In Sweden all asylum seekers in need of financial benefits receive them directly after lodging their claim. They receive the financial benefits in a bank account (monthly or every 2 weeks). Benefits are given in a normal procedure, an accelerated procedure, and in an appeal phase. Asylum seekers with adequate financial means are not entitled to the benefits. Benefits consist of a daily allowance and accommodation, but there may also be other benefits of monetary value. If the asylum-seeker does not eat food in the provided accommodation, he/she gets 233 euros per month, in addition to free accommodation and free health services.
In Finland, the supplementary reception allowance depends on the applicants’ special needs, such as medical or transportation requirements. All allowances are given in every phase of the procedure. Payments are made mostly in cash and through a bank account only if the applicant’s identity is clear. In Finland, the asylum-seeker gets even more than in Sweden—316 euros per month—unless he/she eats in the provided accommodation, in addition to free accommodation and free health and social services.
As of February 2016, both the Finnish and the Swedish governments have woken up, in the face of this apparent pull factor, and have started to mainstream the economic benefits to a more modest, average European level.
Ergo sum: Middle Eastern asylum emigration will go on and reroute
From the above discussion, we can infer that another semi-permanent or permanent movement of persons has occurred from transitional countries to advanced ones. A Western “pull” has traditionally been there, but the “push” has reached a new, steady, and critical point. This has caused the 2015 refugee phenomenon to the European Union, and particularly to Germany and the Nordic countries.
Although exaggerated through misinformation in the social media—which ultimately inspired the huge emigration—Nordic countries are still way better-off than the Middle Eastern countries of origin. Significantly higher GDP, better labor market opportunities, a functioning social welfare system, and a strong political and economic climate are important pull factors. An advanced, rich country with a high-quality welfare system possesses a significant pull character from transitional countries. Other important factors ranging from the availability of social services and housing, to personal safety, and other indicators of the quality of life and human development are also crucial pull factors.
It was indeed the push that came to an acute head in 2015. Although the numbers of asylum-seekers from the Middle East to the Nordic countries seems to be on an acute decrease from data collected in January 2016, the push fundaments for future migratory potential are there and still intensifying. No efforts to halt population growth have been initiated (and any results would only show 15-20 years from now) nor are there, amidst ongoing wars and conflicts, prerequisites to set up or expand economic infrastructures to manage domestic youth unemployment.
As the push is still increasing in effect, the major future driver to determine the amount and type of future refugee flows has to do with the measures taken by the European Union and the single Nordic countries to control the “pull”. Current tendencies to deploy passport controls and to limit the application of the Geneva 1951 Refugee Convention, as well as the strong measures to encourage voluntary repatriation, with the tendency to harmonize (meaning decrease) cash and allowances, will decrease the amount of asylum migrants to the Nordic countries.
However, the potential for further emigration remains in the Middle East, and this emigration will also channel to and through Russia, to the Saudi-Arabian peninsula, or further afar, to Canada and the United States in the future. Also, the continuous emigration from Africa cannot be underestimated for 2016.
A crucial determinant will be where employment and lucrative asylum-related benefits are found, as the economic motive often overweighs the humanitarian ones, in the contemporary asylum emigration from the Middle East outbound.