Rethinking Multiculturalism: How Can Europe Integrate Millions of Refugees?

I was there when it happened. It was New Year’s Eve, and my best friend and I had just left a nightclub in the inner city of Hamburg when we were suddenly in the middle of a throng of people. It was impossible to move; the entire street was crowded with hundreds of people crushed together. When people started pushing each other, the entire situation spiraled out of control. A few meters away an adjacent girl started screaming, telling a group of men to stop touching her; they persisted. She tried to move away but was unable to in the crowd.

It was impossible to do anything through the pushing throng that surrounded us. Struggling our way out of the street, we saw other girls falling victim to the same mistreatment. Next to us a fight broke out, and some people said that a few of the participants were wielding knives. We were shocked by the scene and even more perplexed by the sight of police, standing idle at the end of the street, without enough manpower to control the situation. As my best friend and I left the venue, a man kept staring at me, and as I passed him, he asked me in broken German with an aggressive voice if my friend and I were gay.

Similar acts also took place to an even greater extent in Cologne, and most of the perpetrators were refugees. As media outlets around the world reported on the story, the German people’s perception of the refugee crisis shifted. From now on, the media reported with greater frequency about similar cases in Germany, and although those cases were rare, concerns started to arise.

The event left a negative impact on me that lingered for weeks. How could Europe integrate over a million refugees who come from countries with such different societies? How do we make sure that the incidents in Cologne and Hamburg do not repeat themselves?

Chancellor Merkel is convinced that most refugees will one day return to their native countries, as refugees did at the end of the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s. However, with the Syrian Civil War becoming a conflict mired in numerous geopolitical interests, that hope seems to be mistaken. We would be remiss to think that most of the refugees will return — the fact of the matter is that they are here to stay.

In 2015 alone, a million refugees came to Germany, and most of them were Syrian Muslims. If we adjust those numbers to the U.S equivalent, we’d speak about the integration of roughly four million refugees into the American economy and society.

And Europe has not been particularly successful in integrating Muslims. French Muslims still live in the worst neighborhoods, have low paying jobs and low education levels. The unemployment rate for immigrants is up to 17 percent, nearly 80 percent higher than the non-immigrant rate of 9.7 percent. In Germany, only every sixth child with an immigration background gets a college degree. In Great Britain, 21.3 percent of Muslims have never worked, and 46 percent of the 1.2 British Muslims live in the poorest areas of the country. The ongoing structural discrimination has led to the radicalization of parts of the Muslim European youth — approximately 3,000 of whom have joined the Islamic State.

The millions of refugees now entering Europe present the continent with one of its greatest challenges. With a stagnated European economy, the question of long-term integration for those who fled their countries remains uncertain. In order to master this defining moment, European nations should look at other countries that have successfully integrated Muslims, in particular, the U.S. Yes, the same country whose leading GOP presidential candidate wants to build walls to block out Mexicans and temporarily prohibit Muslims from entering the country.

Upon my arrival in the U.S. as an international student, I was surprised by how well Muslims were integrated into their broader communities. Graduation rates between American Muslims and the general population are nearly the same, and they are nearly as likely to reach a household income of $100,000. What are the reasons for such a development and what can Europe do to ensure that more immigrants find work, guarantee that more children of immigrants earn a college degree, and make it so there is no difference between an immigrant family and a native family in similar socioeconomic opportunities?

Of course, one of the reasons that the U.S. has integrated Muslims so well lies in the makeup of the immigrant population. American Muslims come from more than 77 countries, are widespread and, through the Immigrant Act of 1965, are mostly well educated. Europe’s immigrant structure is radically different. Most countries have Islamic communities deriving from one country in particular, and the majority are poorly educated guest workers who were allowed entry in order to help rebuild the country after the Second World War. Most countries incorrectly assumed that these guest workers would return to their countries of origin, which is one reason why they never passed legislation to address the social and economic problems that affected millions of immigrants.

Today, the suburbs of Brussels and London are the urban manifestations of this failed integration. In late March, Salah Abdeslam, one of the culprits behind the Paris terrorist attacks, was captured in a Molenbeek flat. The borough of 90,000 in the capital of Brussels, where some neighborhoods are up to 80 percent Muslim, has become one of the centers of radicalization, turning Belgium into a breeding ground for international terrorism. That does not mean that every disadvantaged European Muslim will turn into a terrorist, but the failed integration policies have created neighborhoods with different value systems and parallel societies; thus inhibiting effective integration.  

This dramatic failure, which sometimes leads to radicalization, is influenced by many factors, but there are two main trends that have led to a growing number of European Muslims who oppose Western powers and are systematically disadvantaged: social mobility and identity. For some, the path starts after they drop out of school. For example, in the heavily immigrant-populated Créteil district outside of Paris, the high school graduation rate is 71.8 percent – 80% lower than the national average. And even if they graduate from high school, the opportunities for young professionals are low; youth unemployment rate in France is 25.9 percent and even higher for people with an immigration background.

Besides education, Europe also fails to integrate immigrants’ various cultural identities, which sometimes even leads to radicalization. The London bombers of 2005 all were second- and third-generation Muslims, well integrated and receiving post-secondary educations. However, they all struggled with the quandary of a dual-identity, partly because European countries have made it difficult to be both a European and a Muslim. In France Muslim women are not allowed to wear a headscarf, because it would violate their idea of gender equality. In addition, German schools offer religious education in high school, but only for Catholics and Protestants. Until recently, young German Muslims were not able to learn about Islam in their schools. Now a few states have started pilot projects.

Of course, European nations have built up an extensive welfare system to ensure that social failures do not push families into poverty. State intervention and income redistribution have been the primary tools to achieve this social egalitarianism. Funded by high taxes, such a system prevents the gap between the rich and the poor from becoming too big. Conversely, it limits upward social mobility. If a country is mostly homogeneous, then these types of programs work. But when a country becomes more diverse, problems arise. The end result is immigrants who may have a better standard of living than in their countries of origin but cannot fulfill their God-given potentials due to economic constraints; they are trapped by their socioeconomic circumstances.

If Europeans want to integrate the millions of Syrian refugees, we need to empower them and improve their socioeconomic situation. We need to increase their social mobility by cutting taxes, creating jobs and making higher education more accessible. According to an OECD report, Germany should increase its retirement age, give refugees earlier access to the job market, and expand daycare programs to allow women to both raise a child and still have a career. We need to send a clear signal to all immigrants and their descendants that they can be both European and Muslim. In Germany we need to integrate Islamic religious education into the curriculum in order to dispel radical thought from the minds of young students; or, conversely, we must simply eliminate all religious education from the German common core.

Although some fear that by accepting Islam as a part of European culture the situation may be exacerbated and that Europe would appease radicals that are already strong. But, whenever people are economically empowered, secular values generally always increase.

Of course a Europe-wide solution would be ideal. The continent needs more immigration to fight it’s aging population and to maintain economically its welfare state. By solving the refugee crisis in a humane but rational way would demonstrate to the rest of the world that the European Union is more than just a currency.