The increasing secularization of Western Europe has magnified the conflict over immigration to the region. Whereas Western Europeans have become less religious over time, immigrants to the region are generally more religious. Increasing numbers of Muslim immigrants from North Africa and Southwest Asia have settled in Europe, lured by the hope of economic prosperity and political freedom. In 2010, around 6 percent of Europe identified as Muslim. That number is expected to grow to 10 percent by 2050. Muslims have the highest fertility rate among the major religious groups, so coupled with increasing immigration, this population is growing. In contrast, just under three-quarters of Europeans identified as Christian in 2010. This is expected to drop to 65 percent in 2050.
Europeans are divided about how open the region should be to immigrants, and how asylum seekers, refugees seeking sanctuary from oppression, should be treated. Even before the 2015 wave of Syrian migrants to Europe, a 2012-2014 survey showed that most Europeans (52 percent) wanted immigration levels to decrease. Opinions vary within the region, however. In the United Kingdom, 69 percent of people support decreased immigration. In Greece, a gateway country for migrants attempting to enter Europe, 84 percent of people desire decreased immigration. A majority of adults in Northern European countries, however, want immigration to stay the same or increase.
In 2014 and 2015, migration to Europe intensified as a result of an ongoing civil war in Syria. There were more refugees in 2014 than in any other year since World War II. 2015 shattered that record, however, as 65.3 million people were displaced. Germany has received the most applications for people seeking refugee status.
The journey for migrants is difficult and dangerous. Many attempt to cross by sea into Greece. Boats are often overcrowded and capsizing is common. Around 34 percent of refugees are children, many of them unaccompanied. Although the entire influx of refugees represents around 0.5 percent of Europe’s population, it is not necessarily the sheer number of refugees that poses a problem, but rather, the idea of how immigrant populations might change the identity of a nation-state.
Many small towns in Europe have experienced shifting demographics as people move away to work in cities and immigrants move in to work in the available jobs. As Western Europe moved through industrialization, it has increasingly shifted away from heavy manufacturing and increased employment in service and high-tech industries, a process known as deindustrialization. The higher-skilled and higher-educated workers from small towns moved to the cities to find work, while lower-skilled immigrants worked the often dangerous or labor intensive jobs that remained. In the United Kingdom in particular, many of the people who oppose immigration and supported Britain leaving the EU are located in these small towns where immigration has quite visibly changed the cultural landscape that had already shifted as a result of deindustrialization.
For some, the debate over immigration and asylum are less questions of national identity and more issues of social justice. Do countries that have political freedom and economic prosperity have a moral obligation to assist those in need? Historically, the answer has often been “no.” In 1938, on the brink of World War II, representatives from Western European countries voted not to accept Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria. Numerous countries in Europe have similarly voted not to accept Syrian migrants. Countries like Germany, which has accepted a relatively large number of asylum seekers, have been critical of other countries that have not been as welcoming. Sweden has specifically argued that if every country in Europe accepted a proportional amount of refugees, they would easily be able to accommodate the influx. Refugee populations typically have lower unemployment rates than native-born populations and though they require social services like housing and employment, can provide a long-term economic boost by increasing the labor force, especially in countries with otherwise declining populations.
Europe’s population will continue to shift in terms of demographics and cultural identity. Recent economic changes and migration patterns have highlighted deep divides about ideas of national identity and the role of the region in global affairs. Europe continues to be an influential and economically important region and will likely continue to attract migrants from surrounding areas.