“Say it loud, say it clear: refugees are welcome here”


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I am the World Bank’s Director for the Western Balkans, and I live in Vienna, Austria, where thousands of refugees, mostly fleeing from conflict in Syria and Afghanistan, are now straggling across the border from Hungary after harrowing trips on crowded boats, uncomfortable stays in makeshift camps, cramped bus rides and long journeys on foot when all else fails.

My father’s parents were refugees to America.  They were Jewish peasants from Russia who fled the pogroms of the early twentieth century.  My mother’s great-grandparents were economic migrants, educated German Jews who went to Chicago in the mid-nineteenth century to seek their fortune in grain futures and real estate.  When my parents married in the early 1950s, theirs was considered a “mixed marriage”: Russian and German; peasant stock and educated elite; refugees and economic migrants.  I know the difference between the latter two:  refugees are pushed out of their home countries by war, persecution and a fear of death; economic migrants are pulled out of their home countries by the promise of a more prosperous life for themselves and their children.

The European Union has been absorbing economic migrants long before the recent surge in refugees. In the past twenty five years, many of these migrants have been from the countries of the Western Balkans, where I work with my World Bank colleagues to support faster growth and job creation.  In 2014, forty-five percent of those seeking asylum in Germany were economic migrants from the Western Balkans, with the largest numbers from Kosovo and Albania.   In the past, Balkan countries often made the international news for their own bloody conflicts, but now they are at peace and on the nightly news for a different reason: refugees from distant wars are favoring the “Balkan Route” into the European Union, through FYR Macedonia and neighboring Serbia, before finally entering EU member Hungary.

While the Balkan states are no longer generating their own refugees, they remain world champions of out-migration.  Fully twenty-five percent of the source population of the Western Balkans resides outside their home countries, compared to only three percent for the rest of the world. Most are in European Union countries, with nearby Vienna being a preferred destination.  I meet them every time I need a plumber, electrician or taxi in the city.

Out-migration has been of enormous benefit to the countries of the Western Balkans.  Before the onset of the global and Eurozone crises of 2008, the Western Balkans grew by more than five percent per annum, leading to significant income convergence with the slower-growing European Union.  Most of this growth in the Balkans was consumption driven, fueled by migrant remittances equaling as much as ten percent of national income each year, dwarfing foreign investment and aid flows.  In the aftermath of the Eurozone crisis, as EU member states struggled with recession, out-migration from, and remittances to, the Western Balkans slowed, along with economic growth.  Convergence with the EU ground to a halt.  Ironically, the resulting lack of growth in the Western Balkans has only served to increase the desire of the young to migrate to the EU, even as the door to Europe has shut tighter with each year of weak recovery.  Offering asylum to refugees fleeing violence may further shut the door to economic migrants from the “safe countries” of the Western Balkans.

With unemployment currently running between 40 and 65 percent of the young labor force in the Western Balkans, it is understandable that these countries rely on out-migration to stimulate growth and ensure social stability.  And it is understandable that their populations and Governments would react warily when more young, unemployed workers—the refugees of war-torn Syria and elsewhere—start crossing their territory.  But few, if any, refugees wish to stay in the small, poorer countries of the Western Balkans.  The Government of Serbia has understood this, and thus far behaved maturely in welcoming refugees humanely and ushering them to the EU border, respecting EU policies regarding refugees and asylum seekers.

Even if you are not haunted by the picture of young Aylan Kurdi lying dead on a beach or a truck full of corpses on an Austrian highway, you should welcome the inflow of refugees to Europe on economic grounds.  The EU needs people, especially young and healthy workers.  Germany, for example, will see its labor force decline by 13 million workers in the next 25 years.  With its aging and shrinking population, the country will need to welcome an additional 370,000 workers per year just to maintain the status quo.  Germany’s future economic growth--and the sustainability of its old age security system—depend critically on this inflow.  This partly explains Germany’s open arms to the current flow of refugees.  But the story is similar in Hungary, where an additional 43,000 workers are needed every year to counteract the graying of society and stimulate economic growth.   And while EU countries may prefer to pick and choose their migrants, it’s a good bet that refugees with the stamina and courage to flee their homes, face perilous sea crossings and exhausting over-land treks will prove to be highly motivated workers whose children will climb the ladder of economic success in their adopted countries--just as my grandparents and great-grandparents did in America.

It is heartening to see the welcome given to refugees by many in Germany and Austria in recent weeks, even as these countries brace for the costs associated with significant absorption.  To some extent, history is repeating itself in Austria as refugees cross the border at Nickelsdorf. This crossing is the very same where thousands of East German refugees crossed into the West from Hungary when the iron curtain began to fall in 1989.  Many Austrians take pride that their country has served as the entryway to a better life for so many refugees. Austria has served as an important transit point and destination for Cold War refugees in the past, including an estimated 180,000 from Hungary in 1956, 162,000 from Czechoslovakia in 1968 and 150,000 from Poland in 1981-82.  And Austria was a continuous transit point for 250,000 Jewish refugees leaving the Soviet Union between 1973 and 1989, with tens of thousands remaining in Austria, mostly in Vienna.  Between 1992 and 1995, 95,000 war refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina were provided asylum in Austria. [i] 

But Austrians also live with a darker history that generated refugees and allowed the slaughter of those not permitted to leave when Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany.  Everywhere you walk in Vienna, you cannot escape the reminders of this past: the mansions of the wealthy Jewish families who financed construction of the Habsburg Emperor’s famous Ring Road but lost their lives in World War II; the narrow alleys of Leopoldstadt where Jews migrating from Eastern European crowded into Vienna in the nineteenth century only to face annihilation in the next century.  When we see the contribution to the arts, sciences, politics and business of refugees from World War II—giants like Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud--we can imagine what the world lost from those who were not allowed to live.

As I walk the stately streets of Vienna, I know deep in my core that the moral imperative to save human lives and give refugees asylum is sufficient.  It is enough.  The bonus for all of us is the long-term growth, prosperity and social security that refugees will bring to the aging populations and struggling economies of Europe.  So let’s say it loud, say it clear: refugees are welcome here.

[i] Austria: A Country of Immigration? Michael Jandl and Albert Kraler, Migration Information Source, Migration Policy Institute, March 1, 2003.


Join the Conversation

Saumya Mitra
September 18, 2015

A highly moving blog, and one also based on solid reasoning and a strong sense of history. It illustrates well how the Western Balkans have for long seen large labour movements, refugees or internally displaced occasioned by cruel internal wars, and those who have sought to improve their lives. Now that two countries are major transit countries, with little demand for refugee settlement, it is surely incumbent upon them to offer the succour their own people received at difficult times and the openness they enjoy today to economic migration to richer parts of Europe.
I want to extend the discussion in one direction: the lessons we can draw from the West Balkans experience of re-settling returning refugees and the internally displaced (ID). One day, we hope very soon, the Syrian conflict will end and Libya will be a viable state. Many refugees will want to return, some will be compelled to do so. Moreover, the internal displacement in both countries is horrific. The Bank will surely play a major role in this task. As one who lived and worked in the Sarajevo mission immediately after the war, my experience tells me that refugee/ID resettlement in all its dimensions, housing, livelihoods, social/health support, reintegration of soldiers, will be a huge undertaking, and requires a comprehensive approach and careful preparation well in advance. The refugee-recipient countries as well as the EU will want to play a strong role in facilitating re-settlement and will be drawn into the planning.
Finally, as one who lives in Vienna for part of the year (in Leopoldstadt actually, with its growing Jewish population), I found the blog resonant in noting the contribution skilled migrants are making to the quality of Viennese life. Europe will be enriched by enterprising migrants, many of whom today are highly educated and aspirational. Those who will return to their countries at peace will be all the better equipped to build the peace.

Susan Stout
September 18, 2015

Excellent and motivating essay. Thank you so much!

Aneta Georgievska-Shine
September 19, 2015

Thank you for this excellent contribution to the discussion - the countries of the Western Balkans (but also those like Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic) have to look deeply within themselves and recognize how wrong their resistance to this influx of desperate people is. However, the US government must also give its own example - one cannot buy oneself out of responsibility by financial assistance alone.

Hedi Larbi
September 19, 2015

Dear Ellen. Thank you so much for this excellent article. Indeed, beyond the legal obligation of the international law, the moral imperative to save human lives is enough.
Keep up the great work
Hedi (ex-Ctry Dir WB)

A goy
September 20, 2015

I agree with your general implication the rich country of Israel should take at least a million refugees that istheir humanitarian duty and they are even sharing a border with Syria! Open your hearts Israel accept remember you were just like them 70 years ago!

September 23, 2015

May your tireless labor continue to bear wonderful fruit. "Old Europe" has an ugly history of rejecting multiculturalism. Every nook and cranny of intolerance can be transformed.

September 28, 2015

Thank you for the story. It is evident that countries, especially the new EU member states, are struggling to open up beyond opening their economies. This situation today is not that different from the one over 60 year ago when many Eastern Europeans were leaving their countries to escape and look for a better future for their families. Accepting different skin color, nationality, religion or orientation seems to be taking a bit too long.

N Balachandran
October 02, 2015

As the Father of a World Banker albeit younger than Ms Goldstein, and a Jew from Mother's side(the line of blood), we have to see, in my opinion, the mixture of water and oil, used in Indian and eastern cooking. The analogy is to point to the failure of assimilation of Turks in Germany, the Romas from India in Europe anf finally my own people who left Palestine and split into 12 tribes, scattered all over the world. We don't even know where some of them went. The Juden people were never welcome anywhere because they held on to their faith, specialised in certain sectors of skilled work -including finance -and consequently because of pogroms and persecution, moved to other countries, including the New World. Economic betterment came with migration because the kinder were smart and studious, they accepted any job and observed family discipline. Thus religious tolerance is required for resettlemernt of refugees and migrants. Those who migrate for opportunity will remain opportunists, those who migrate for security will graft and add to the wealth of adopted nations, very much like the American Jews.

Milica Aksentic
October 13, 2015

Thank you, dear Ellen for such an enriching article. Coming from Western Balkans, being based in Vienna and working on immigration, I could not agree more. I am very proud on how the Austrian society deals with refugees on a daily basis, despite hardliner’s rise in popularity. I am oftentimes at Hauptbahnof, Viennese main train station, where students’ improvised welcome centre turned into a professional, round the clock, flawless practical and emotional support for people who are transiting to Germany. Young people in Europe have turned out to show a lot of compassion and broadmindedness. And since their voices will get louder as they get older, Europe's trajectory will improve. The times of homogenous societies are over and acceptance of this is the first milestone we are about to cross.