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Current Crisis, Future Catastrophe - Do We Have Enough Immigrants?

Heartbreaking images of a dead three year-old Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach have become a powerful symbol of what is being described as Europe's "migrant crisis."  

But poor little Aylan Kurdi could have been part of the solution to our continent's problems, had he been able to reach it.  Surely the true crisis is that not enough Europeans, especially some of our politicians, understand this.  It is a sustainability issue.

Our rapidly ageing populations are threatening the viability of our economies.  According to official statistics, the current proportion of this country’s retirees represents around 15 percent of the Czech population, which will increase to nearly 30 percent by 2030.

European Commission figures show the dependency ratio of over-65s to the economically active 15-64 age group will increase to 50 percent, from 28 percent by 2060.  This means there will be just two potential workers per retiree, down from almost four.  

The fact is that aging of our population shaves 0.2 percent a year off European economic growth.  It hasn't become a full-blown crisis yet; but it will when pension systems grow unsustainable, long after our current political leaders have retired.

Populist political rhetoric about the need to protect our borders overshadows a stark reality.  Economists know that to maintain the current ratio of senior citizens to the general population, Europe needs its younger population to increase by nearly 300 million above than the current rate in the coming decades. 

There's no way to organically increase Europe’s population at the rate needed to achieve economic growth forecasts.  Our leaders can't force people to make more babies.   Therefore increased immigration is Europe's is the clear solution to our approaching fiscal disaster.  

From a sustainability perspective, Europe needed Aylan, just as it does all of these pitiful migrants who are desperately seeking security in Europe.  Almost all are young, and tragically many are unaccompanied children, who if integrated will contribute significantly to the future of our economy, not least of which will help to pay and care for the continent’s future retirees.

And for those who say that immigrants represent a drain on our society, EU statistics demonstrate that there is no higher unemployment among those from ethnic minorities compared to those born locally, nor do they put more strain on welfare budgets.

Surely people who have the motivation to risk their lives travelling thousands of miles, with little money and small children in their arms, are going to grab every chance they are given to improve their lives.  From a sustainably perspective, I am convinced we should be welcoming these people. 

Sadly, it seems that anti-immigrant sentiment is especially high in Europe’s former communist countries. At the same time, it is these nations that are facing the gravest danger from aging.

Slovakia's ratio of senior citizens to the general population, for example, is now just 13.9 percent, one of the lowest in the EU; that's projected to rise to 31 percent by 2050.  Hungary's social system will also struggle to cope, as the proportion of retirees in the population rises from 17.9 percent to 27.5 percent.  

It’s in these countries, which have seen very limited immigration until now, where irrational xenophobia helps irresponsible politicians to win popularity points.   But the children of today's voters are likely to face higher taxation and decreased pension benefits if such politics succeeds in keep immigrants out.

The Visegrád Group comprising the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia have been among the most vocal opponents of plans to relocate refugees across the European Union.  Arguably, such refusal to accommodate these migrants, who are often well-educated, ignores economic logic.  A recent survey by Manpower Group, a consultancy, found that nearly one in five companies in the Czech Republic  have problems to fill vacancies, and that the challenge has been steadily growing in recent years.

IT firms seem to be struggling the most.  The brightest are lured to Western Europe or America by higher salaries. Poland may be thriving as a back office for European business, but in 2014 it needed 50,000 more IT workers than it could find.

So far skill shortages have not stopped national economies from growing.  Poland and Hungary will expand by around 2.8-3.3 percent this year.  But they could do much better.  GDP per person in 2014 in the “Visegrád Four” was less than 68 percent of the EU average.  

Central and eastern countries are failing to reach their considerable potential.  Slovakia produces nearly one million cars per year, the most per capita in the world.  In August, Jaguar Land Rover announced plans to open its first continental European plant near the city of Nitra, costing €1.4 billion by 2018.  Local suppliers should be among the main beneficiaries, but a survey by PwC, another consulting firm, found that nearly 80 percent already lack skilled labour.

In Hungary, which has been among the most aggressive in its efforts to reject these refugees, the crisis in the health system will soon become a catastrophe.  Some 40 percent of doctors are over 60 years old, and more than 200 medical practices have no doctor at all, mostly in the poorer eastern and northern regions. At the hospital in the northern town of Ozd, 55 doctors work around the clock to serve a city of 80,000 people, where the director says adverts for recruits get no response.

While it’s unrealistic to expect refugees from far away to plug skill gaps instantly, there is ample evidence that Syrians, the single largest group of arrivals, are well-educated.  Many Syrian doctors, for instance, were trained in the Soviet Union and speak fluent Russian.

It’s an irony to hear some Czech and Slovak politicians’ pronouncements on stopping these refugees from entering when an estimated million Czechoslovaks risked everything to escape across the borders in search of better lives between 1948 and 1989.  Emigration for those people meant breaking family ties and being criminalized, losing their possessions and sometimes causing relatives to be persecuted by the communist authorities.

Empathetically dubbed “émigrés”, most were highly skilled who left in search of better lives, unable to bear the anti-democratic and totalitarian regimes at home.  But mass emigration from our part of the world goes back to the 19th Century when huge numbers people emigrated for economic reasons.  Indeed, there are an estimated two million people living in the US who proudly to call themselves Czech Americans.

Until Europe agrees on a common approach to the increased influx of immigrants, sustainably-thinking countries like Germany will pick up most of the newcomers, acquiring better insurance against future problems.

Sustainable development is key to our future.  Xenophobia is not only the nemesis of these desperate migrants and the adversary of compassion, it is the enemy of Europe’s economic prospects.


By Jonathan Wootliff

About the author: A former director of Greenpeace International, Jonathan Wootliff lives in Prague and works throughout the world as a sustainability consultant to business.  He chairs the Board of Experts of the Czech Business Council for Sustainable Development.  He has consulted many large corporations including BP, Colgate-Palmolive, McDonald’s, Procter & Gamble and Whirlpool, and providing counsel to companies on the development of sustainability strategies that benefit the environment, society and business.  Among his many activities, he helps companies to resolve disputes, forge productive relationships with non-governmental organizations, and build long-term sustainability strategies.  A qualified journalist with a subsequent background in public relations, Jonathan commonly assists companies with their sustainability communications.  He can be contacted at in cooperation with Czech Leaders Magazine 

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