The Refugee Crisis & Why America is Different: Part I


As someone interested in immigration from a conservative, American perspective, the recent migration crisis in Europe is of major fascination to me. For starters the genuine human tragedy is palpable. Even the most stringent of nativists must be moved by the images of humanity dying en mass in the Mediterranean Sea.

Furthermore even the most cheerful of pro-immigration advocates can’t help but furrow their brow at the potential difficulties at assimilating and integrating migrants from North Africa and the Near East, in particular Muslim migrants in Europe.

These difficulties and America’s recent refugee crisis regarding Central American children has left me wondering about American comparisons to Europe. This post will serve as a summary and overview of sorts. In this series I want to analyze a few major themes; how does America differ from Europe, what are the ups and downs of Muslim immigration to Europe, and is there a legitimate comparison of European difficulties to Hispanic immigration to the US?

European Refugee Crisis: A Summary

As a part of the legal structure of the European Union, member states have agreed to a number of common immigration and asylum policies that affect this ongoing crisis.

The first is the Schengen Agreement, which set up the eponymous Schengen Area, which saw internal borders functionally abolished, enabling passport free movement within the EU. Notably, several EU states, such as Ireland, Great Britain, Croatia, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Romania are not part of the Schengen Area, whereas non-EU states such as Switzerland, Lichtenstein, Norway and Ireland are. Most relevant to this current refugee crisis, the internal borders can be restored temporarily in extraordinary circumstances. The relaxation of internal European migration has resulted in increased emphasis placed on Europe’s external borders with the rest of the world.

The second is the Dublin Regulation, more specifically its third negotiation, effective in 2008. The purpose was not halt the amount of “orbiting refugees” who would be shuffled from member state to member state. As per the Dublin III Regulation, you must apply for refugee status in the country you have fled to and cannot initiate the process in another jurisdiction.

Recently, states such as Germany and the Czech Republic, suspended their adherence to the Dublin Regulation, allowing for refugees to be directly processed for asylum, whereas border states such as Hungary have been steadfast in their stance that the EU should stick to the 2008 protocol.

Some Basis Facts


Europe, since last year, has undergone a massive wave of refugees, which is unrivaled since the refugee crisis in the 1990s due to the wars in the former Yugoslavia. Since then, there has been a lot of disparate information about how many people are arriving, where they come front and so on. Hopefully I can help clear things up.

In 2014, the European Union received over 626,000 refugees. By comparison 2013 saw 400,000 refugees apply for entry into the EU. In addition, illegal crossings have skyrocketed beyond the 2011 peak to over 400,000 last year. As of November of 2015, nearly 900,000 people have applied for asylum in the European Union.

Tragically, thousands have died since 2014 in attempts to reach Europe by boat, with over 22,000 dying since 2000.

The main routes have been from Turkey directly into the EU over sea, the western Balkans leading deeper into EU, and from North Africa into Italy, while there have been a number of smaller routes that are less widely used. The most dangerous routes tend to be the oversea routes.

While Syrian refugees are certainly the most visible demographic, in reality the wave of refugees/migrants in the last two years is in fact extremely diverse. The largest groups are as follows;

  • Near East: Syria, Iraq
  • South Asia: Afghanistan, Pakistan
  • Eastern Europe: Kosovo, Serbia, Albania, Ukraine, Russia
  • Sub-Saharan Africa: Nigeria, Eritrea, Somalia

There are more than this stretching from North Africa, the Near East, Eastern Europe, and all over West Africa. However the reason for the recent spike has been people fleeing the recent conflict mainly from Syria and Iraq. While a large proportion are people fleeing active war zones, a decent amount are also economic migrants. It is estimated that 62% are those fleeing from war zones.

Lastly, these refugees have applied to a variety of countries in the EU, predominately in Germany, Hungary and Austria. Germany alone expects a massive surge in future, possibly up to 800,000 by the end of this year.

The reaction of the EU has been varied. Germany initially said they would take in over 800,000 refugees unilaterally, however now it looks like Merkel may backtrack that initial opening. While EU ministers have adopted a plan to resettle a modest 120,000 throughout the EU over 2 years, its application has been unsteady and disputed, as several countries have either opted out or actively fought against the measure. Under the proposed plan, Germany, Spain, and France would take the lion’s share of the refugees, the remaining of which would be spread out over the EU member states. The exceptions are the United Kingdom, Ireland and Denmark, which opted out of the proposal. The resettlement plan was also voted against by the states bordering the crisis, namely the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Hungary and Romania.

However despite the crisis, a large amount of refugees have in fact been accepted. As The Economist points out, while many of those applying are economic migrants, refugees fleeing war zones all enjoy an acceptance rate over 50%, which has created an interesting cottage industry of counterfeiting Syrian passports in order to increase their chances of acceptance.  Just over 200,000 in total have been accepted. By comparison, North America has taken in very few refugees, with the US taking in 1,500 (and proposing 10,000 next year) and Canada taking in 10,000 over three years (Australia also has pledged to take in 12,000).

However all of this serves a microcosm of the wider refugee crisis in the Near East. An overlooked element in this debate is that most Syrian refugees are not seeking asylum in Europe but rather are living in the wider Arab and Muslim world. Nearly 8 million people alone in Syria are internal refugees within Syria itself (which is astonishing considering how Syria is a country of 22 million people). Another 4 million or so are living in Turkey and Lebanon, while another million are spread throughout Egypt, Jordan and Iraq, with Jordan and Iraq taking the clear majority. Interestingly enough the Gulf Arab states have taken no refugees so far, though Cato Institute points out that 1.3 million Syrians do live in the Gulf states but are not listed as refugees.

While there are a host of differing stories and statistics, the overall narrative is that we are witnessing an outpouring of refugees, predominantly from the Near East, into the developed, western world. Unfortunately as the war gets worse not better in Syria, we can only imagine this crisis will deepen as time goes on.

Main Criticism: Culture, Crime & Assimilation

While immigration has been an ongoing political issue in Europe (and the rest of the developed world) before the crisis, this recent wave of refugees and economic migrants has brought forward a critical component of the dispute; assimilation. While there are debates about economic sustainability, welfare dependency, concerns over wage suppression, job competition, the primary question is;

Can Europe, and the wider western world, take in such a large number of Muslim migrants?

This question has brought up a few other concerns regarding America’s ability to take in other refugees, are America’s immigrants truly assimilating, and is culture even a valid discussion to be having in the 21st century?

I’ve discussed this before over at Virtue in the Wasteland, when America had its own miniature (by comparison) refugee crisis regarding Central American children fleeing to the US-Mexico border. We also tangled with the cultural issue. Unfortunately the debate over assimilation, culture and related issues remains incredibly shallow, populated extreme nativists who see Balkanization in every Spanish language ad or progressives who deny there could be any difficulty in assimilation at all. The debate tends to be split into two camps; the Pat Buchanan or Enoch Powell camp, who argue diversity inherently breeds conflict and the “Diversity is Our Strength” camp.

I think the issue of culture, diversity and assimilation is in fact quite a bit more complicated than that. I don’t doubt that places have certain cultures. That is to say, they have different emphases of values, ways of thinking and thus ways of acting. Culture is often summed up as holidays, food, and language but it goes much deeper than that. At its core it is an identity, a loose way of thinking, acting and set of beliefs shared among people who have a shared connection. Usually these people have lived together through a set of conditions and experiences together, with both internal and external differences. On a certain level, this collection of shared beliefs, myths, experiences and a common medium to express them affects the politics of a nation but also how those policies actually work. While this could be a controversial thesis, it’s one that we all believe in, we just accept its powers of explanation for scenarios that are most politically acceptable to us.

For instance, conservatives and progressives in America argue Japan’s extremely low crime rate as a matter of policy. Conservatives say it’s a byproduct of Japan’s extremely restrictionist immigration policies, whereas liberals would say it is due to it’s highly restrictive gun laws. Or perhaps the divergence (Japan has a homicide rate of less than 1 per 100k whereas America’s hovers between 4-5 per 100,000) can be explained by culture. While oversimplistic, Japan has a tendency to value conformity, which has a positive effect on social aberration such as crime. By contrast, America may have a higher crime rate (for developed nations) in part due to the fact that Americans are more violent people.

Or, for a more politically correct scenario for my progressive friends, take the American South. While drawing comparisons between western and non-western nations’ culture may be uncomfortable for some, there is no shortage of literature describing the problem with the American South as fundamentally cultural. More notably there doesn’t seem to be any taboo in discussing the supposed cultural deficiencies of the South among respectable, progressive people. There may be more than a grain of truth to the idea that the culture and conditions of the rural South affect policy outcomes, including economic.

In short, we all on some level accept that culture, and all that entails, will affect policy outcomes in any society. We are just choosy about how willing we are to point it out, probably depending on how culturally close to home it is for us.

So it’s clear that culture is something that exists, however ephemeral, and it does affect outcomes, both good and bad. But what happens when people enter a society who didn’t go through the experiences of the “native culture”? Does it weaken the culture and breed conflict between natives and newcomers? Does it inherently strengthen the native culture? Or possibly something in between?

If it wasn’t too obvious already by the tone here, I choose Door No. 3. Dr. Robert Putnam, the Harvard sociologist famous for books like Bowling Alone and Better Together, comes to a different, more nuanced conclusion. Contrary to the multiculturalists, diversity is not inherently our strength. The Boston Globe summarizes his research as;

It has become increasingly popular to speak of racial and ethnic diversity as a civic strength… Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam has found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.

Putnam himself has put it this way in an interview with the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard;

The short run effect of being around people who are different from us is to make all of us uncertain – to hunker down, to pull in, to trust everybody less. Like a turtle in the presence of some feared threat, we pull in.

Now naturally nativists of all stripes jumped on Putnam’s research. In fact Putnam himself said he was horrified at the conclusion that some extremists took. In fact Putnam also in his research found that wider unifying, cultural phenomena – he lists religion and identity building institutions like the US military – can trump the tendency to separate and hunker down. To put it another way, assimilation can and does smooth out differences and cultural differences are in fact not some genetic, innate trait. In fact, if it were, the Balkans would be a great place to live with little to no ethnic tensions.

To sum it up, cultural concerns are of some validity. The culture of a polity does, to an extent, affect negative and positive outcomes. Furthermore it’s clear that while diversity does not inherently breed conflict, it does not act as an innate civic strength either.

Assimilation: Europe & America

So that begs a few questions. If assimilation is going to be a challenge, if there is some cultural element to policy outcome and if there are going to be more calls to accept refugees from the Near East;

  1. How well does the United States assimilate immigrants in general?
  2. How well does the United States assimilate Muslim immigrants in particular?
  3. How well does Europe deal with either of the above questions?

Since this post is already too long, I will not go into these questions in depth now but instead will answer them in two subsequent posts. But I will draw a quick observation. Despite the fact that the United States is, culturally, an overwhelmingly European society/nation (I will go into greater depth on this in a later post), the United States does a far better job of assimilating immigrants than Europe does.

The RAND Corporation points out;

[We] conclude that today’s Mexican inflow differs little from past mass immigrations into the United States by the Irish, the Jews, and the Italians and that assimilation should be as successful as in the past. France, however, while it has successfully assimilated a wide variety of individuals, has had no previous mass immigrations, and its current direction is likely to lead to increasing problems. The paper suggests a “steady as she goes” course for the United States, and some policy changes that may help France cope.

Not only is this true of head on comparison between the United States and France, but also true between the United States, Canada and the European Union in general. The Manhattan Institute notes;


On the whole, immigrants in the United States are more assimilated than those in most European countries, except Portugal, where a large proportion of immigrants originated in former Portuguese-speaking colonies.


The report goes on to specifically note that while Europe continues to struggle with Muslim immigration, the United States and Canada by comparison does quite well.

In all, Europe and the United States face an extremely thorny issue. Along with hundreds of thousands of people fleeing misery and violence, there are questions of how best to act in the interests of the citizens of the countries these governments are elected to govern. How much are immigrants truly assimilating, and how, if at all, can we reproduce these successes? What difficulties are there and, how, if at all, can we mitigate them? Are Europe’s troubles likely to come to the United States and is that a reason to curtail immigration? Is America’s historic assimilation success really a blueprint for the EU? These are the questions I am hoping to settle (a bit) in the next two posts.


Since this issue is so huge, I’ve attached a few resources that are good reading as well as extremely helpful in breaking down such a large topic.

  • Vox’s Refugee Breakdown
  • Putnam’s interview on NPR
  • Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert Putnam, 2000.
  • Assimilating Immigrants: Why America Can and France Cannot by Robert Levine, RAND Corporation, 2004.
  • Comparing Immigrant Assimilation in North America and Europe, Manhattan Institute, 2011.
  • The Economist’s Refugee Breakdown
  • The Syrian Refugee Crisis and Lessons from the Iraqi Refugee Experience by Sarah Tobin, Institute for Iraqi Studies, 2015.

5 thoughts on “The Refugee Crisis & Why America is Different: Part I

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