Europe is in the midst of the largest refugee crisis since World War II. The mass migration of people primarily from the Middle East and Africa, and the tensions arising from this merging of different cultures, is threatening the continent’s unity.

It’s important to recognize the value that migrants bring to their host countries. It’s also important to recognize our moral and legal obligations towards people fleeing conflict and unrest.

At the same time, we should not simply dismiss those people who raise concerns about immigration as xenophobic or racist. When we do so, we risk fomenting backlash and sowing the seeds of division – something we’re already seeing happen across Europe and the US.

Instead, we should be able to have open and candid conversations on these issues. But first, we need a better understanding of the challenge at hand.

Europe’s refugee crisis, in numbers

Below is a snapshot of the migrants that entered the EU from October 2014 to October 2015.

Regional origins of migrants entering Europe (arrivals from Oct 2014-15)
Image: Economist; Eurostat; Frontex; UNHCR; author’s calculations.

And now, let’s take a closer look at the socio-demographic characteristics of these new arrivals.

The data below imagines migrants as a nation unto themselves, split between applicants and those who have been granted residency or asylum, and looks at their vital statistics. These figures – based on the weighted average of origin-country values of the underlying variables – suggest a population with large differences compared to their hosts.

Vital statistics of migrants vs. EU and Germany (arrivals from Jan 2008 to Feb 2017)
Image: BAMF; Economist; EPI; Eurostat; Frontex; GMAT; IMF; Pew Research; UIS; UNDP; UNHCR; UN FAO; WHO; World Bank; WEF; author’s calculations (country origin and acceptance rate based on Oct 2014-15 data)

At over 4.5 million, if these migrants were a nation, it would be comparable in size to Ireland, but with average wealth similar to Ukraine. The nation’s average number of years of schooling would be half the EU value. A quarter of the nation’s adults would be illiterate; for young people (15-24), that number would be 1 in 7. Less than 40% of the nation would have finished secondary education; the tertiary attainment rate would be 20%.

In terms of quality-adjusted human capital, the average GMAT score of people from this imaginary nation would be more than one standard deviation lower than the EU value.

The migrants are overwhelmingly male and come from countries that rank low when it comes to gender equality – our fictional nation would therefore rank alongside countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Morocco in the Forum’s Global Gender Gap report.

Human development – i.e. the overall level of societal advancement in well-being, education and health – in this nation would be just above what the UNDP refers to as “low human development”, putting it on par with Timor-Leste and Bangladesh.

The challenge of integration

Deeply embedded habits and values do not instantly transform the minute we cross a border. Policy-makers will need to ensure that the EU’s latest arrivals can adapt to the continent’s norms.

The challenge here is that people tend to adopt the norms and culture of their social network. And unfortunately, humans have a strong tendency to socialize with people of the same ethnicity, culture, language and religion. In the US, for example, the majority of white Americans do not have any close minority friends.

We also tend to be dishonest with ourselves about this tendency. For example, in examining dating patterns Steven Levitt noted that even those who stated that “race does not matter” in their online dating profiles, an overwhelming majority searched for partners almost exclusively within their own race.

Marriage is also a powerful force for integration. Yet the practice of consanguineous marriages – typically frowned upon in Europe – is prevalent in the countries of origin of many of the EU’s new migrants.

Another way people integrate is over the dinner table. But the data in the above figures show that this avenue will be limited given the differences in lifestyle. Most Muslims – and especially those who are devout – do not consume alcohol or pork. Yet these are two central aspects of EU (and especially German) culture, and can be viewed as a general proxy of distance between cultures. The typical European imbibes over 11 litres of pure alcohol annually, whereas for migrants from Muslim-majority countries, it is a fraction of that. Likewise, pork is the principal meat consumed in the EU, but it is insignificant in the diets of Muslim-majority migrants. With limited possibilities for social interactions, the scope for successful integration will be hampered.

The new arrivals’ employment prospects are also not promising, given the structure and needs of the EU and German labour markets. Germany is a knowledge-based economy known for its precision manufacturing. The greatest demands there are for highly-skilled labour. Based on this and the generally low educational qualifications of the latest influx of migrants, it seems that there is a mismatch between the skill sets of the newcomers and what Europe (and especially Germany) needs.

Migrant attitudes to LGBT issues are also highly divergent with those of most Europeans. Likewise, the data suggest that many of the new arrivals do not come from countries with a tradition of tolerance with respect to ethnic minorities. Such values will hinder their participation in the multicultural and sexually liberated societies of the EU.

Finally, language is paramount for integration. Although a quarter of new arrivals claim some knowledge of the English language, just 1 in 8 originates from countries where Latin script languages are native. Less than 2% speak German.

Those are the challenges – now how do we confront them?

The intent of this piece is not to dwell on differences or to cause further divisions. But policy-makers need to quantify the gaps that exist so that they can do three important things:

1. Understand the effort that needs to be applied towards absorbing the newcomers

2. Assess what capacity there is for the host to accommodate and integrate

3. Avoid the temptation to ignore instead of tackling the very real tendency of homophily and sorting

The history of immigration and integration in Europe has not been one of great success. The Roma have lived in Europe for hundreds of years but remain on the fringe of society. More recently, Arab and Turkish immigrants have struggled to integrate, prompting Angela Merkel to remark that “multiculturalism has utterly failed”.

Without an active and interventionist agenda to integrate these new migrants, we will end up with significant subpopulations in European countries, people living in underperforming parallel societies.

The gaps highlighted in this piece are areas that will grow and strain the EU (and especially Germany). Politicians should not shy away from frank discussions about the socio-demographics of the migrants and the gaps relative to host nations.

Without honest dialogue, the refugee crisis will simply provide more fuel for demagogues and intensify the backlash against immigration.