Gareth Walsh puts the figures of the refugee crisis in context. 

There has been much commentary on the toxic media and political discourse concerning the recent increase in refugees, fleeing violence, and economic migrants, fleeing poverty, arriving on Europe’s shores and at Europe’s frontiers. With honourable exceptions, there has been widespread talk of a migrant ‘crisis,’ ‘waves of migrants washing up,’ and even dehumanising and faux-catastrophic language such as ‘swarms of migrants’ or likening refugees to ‘cockroaches.’

“Migrant crisis adds 0.2% to total EU population in a year!”- doesn’t sound quite as alarming as “1 million on the shores of North Africa boarding boats to Europe!”

This media narrative is generally backed up by what seem like big numbers. The media is reporting that hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees will arrive in Europe this year, which is quite true.

Making numbers sound big feeds a narrative that a problem is big- but we rarely are presented with numbers in context—because in
context, big numbers can actually be small.

Numbers in context

For example, the figure of 1 million people waiting to cross from North Africa into Europe seems like a big number but in context, it really isn’t. The population of the European Union is 503 million. Even if one million cross the Mediterranean into Europe this year- 1 million people amounts to just 0.2% of the total 503 million person population of the EU.

“Migrant crisis adds 0.2% to total EU population in a year!”– doesn’t sounds quite as alarming as “1 million on the shores of North Africa boarding boats to Europe!” does it?

So let’s tackle the figures being bandied around and put them into context. In the total EU population of 503 million, there were 636,000 asylum applications in 2014. That’s 0.12% of the total EU population. A small number.

Irish response

Following the increased media pressure of the past fortnight, the Irish government committed to accepting an additional 2,900 refugees over the 2 and a half year period, on top of the 1,100 already committed to. The total 4,000 refugees over the 2 ½ year period still amounts to just 0.034% of the total population of Ireland per year. It is hard to spin that as a generous, large number.

“If Ireland were to accept refugees at the same rate Germany we would be accepting 40,000 refugees a year”

Ireland is the 12th richest country in the world in terms of GDP per capita according to the IMF/World Bank. There is no refugee crisis in Ireland, only a critical lack of political will to offer some assistance to our fellow human beings.

If Ireland were to accept refugees at the same rate Germany we would be accepting 40,000 refugees a year, rather than 4000 over 2 ½ years.

Europe and Middle East
  • Germany is to accept 800,000 refugees and migrants this year. 800,000 certainly is a big number, however it still amounts to just 0.97% of the total 82.62 million population of Germany.
  • 110,000 people have arrived on the shores of Italy so far this year. While this has been described as a ‘biblical’ wave of migrants in scaremongering tabloid media, it amounts to just 0.18% of the total Italian population.
  • There are around 4,000 people living at the migrant camp at Calais, described sensationally by the media as thousands of migrants waiting to ‘storm’ Britain. This figure is just 0.006% of the total UK population of 64 million.
  • Although media suggestions claim that refugees and migrants are coming to Europe to benefit from European social welfare systems, the vast majority of refugees are travelling to other Middle Eastern countries.
  • Lebanon, with a population of 4.2 million people, is now home to 1.3 million refugees. That’s 30% of the total population, as opposed to the total 0.19%.
  • Jordan, with a population of 6.3 million, has 800,000 refugees, or 12% of its population.

At least 2,700 people have drowned in the Mediterranean so far this year. In non-wartime marine disaster standards, this is a very big figure. After all, less people drowned when the Titanic sunk in 1912, when 1517 people lost their lives.

Europe needs migrants

It is important to note that in European countries such as Italy and Greece, the birth rate is lower than the death date so inward migrant is necessary in order to maintain a working population to look after the aging population. In the UK and Germany, job creation is very high, and migration is a necessary part of the economy in order to allow domestic companies to expand. The 800,000 refugees in Germany will come with skills, education and occupational experiences that will add to the growing Germany economy.

This article isn’t seeking to say that the crisis is actually small on the basis of the figures, or that the increase in refugees and impoverished migrants won’t cause strains for European countries. For the refugees and economic migrants fleeing poverty, this is a major crisis in their lives that they have no control over. However for Europe, it is a manufactured crisis, a direct result of political decisions that shy away from our most basic humanitarian commitments to each other as human beings. This crisis isn’t an accident, but the result of political choices made by European governments.

By understanding the actual scale of the numbers we can better be guided by our humanitarian instincts and duties, and not bunker down in a siege mentality, and pursue a ‘Fortress Europe.’

Europe really can do much, much more.

Take action: A public demonstration will take place at 2pm at the Spire on O’Connell Street on Saturday 12th September to call on the Irish government to take in more refugees.

Author: Gareth Walsh

Gareth Walsh volunteered on the Suas volunteer programme 2014 in Kolkata. He has just completed a degree in Law and Political Science from Trinity College Dublin, and is now undertaking a Masters in Human Rights at the London School of Economics. In the past he was chairperson of the Voluntary Tuition Programme in Trinity College Dublin, which provides free one-to-one tuition by Trinity students and activities clubs for children and teenagers from disadvantaged areas in Dublin’s inner city around Trinity. He is also involved in St. Vincent De Paul’s Sunshine House, and hopes to continue volunteering in the field of education whilst in London.

Photo credit: Lampedusa in Hamburg, Demonstration for the right of refugees in Hamburg, Rasande Tyskar, Creative Commons license

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