Council of Europe Commissioner Muižnieks on immigration

Nils Muižnieks is the Council of Europe Commissioner of Human Rights. (The CoE is not a EU body; it includes all states at least partly located in Europe, except Belarus.) He has written extensively on Europe’s obligation to accommodate refugees from wars and conflicts, including the Syrian civil war most recently. To quote his June piece in The New York Times:

…with the exception of Turkey, European countries are far from experiencing the kind of refugee pressures that much poorer and less stable countries like Pakistan, Lebanon and Ethiopia are experiencing…

Yet Europeans act as if they were on the verge of being “invaded…”

European countries have lost all sense of proportion. With a total population estimated at more than 740 million, they are among the richest and most stable countries in the world, but they pretend to be threatened by the idea of admitting 600,000 asylum seekers a year.

Granted, the EU only has 500 million out of the Council of Europe’s 740 million, but an annual inflow of 0.12% still does not look like an avalanche. In practice, the 0.6 million are going to settle in five countries with a total pop of 120 million (in ballpark terms) – a 0.5% addition – unless the EU ensures they are more evenly spread, which would take ordering around both refugees and some of the member states, with the usual cacophony of protests against Brussels’ unelected bureaucratic dictatorship in the background.

Common folk tend to be xenophobic, as the Commissioner surely knows from experience. Muižnieks is an American political scientist who moved to Latvia, his parents’ native country, in the 1990s and was minister for social integration in 2002-4. It was reported in 2011 that 37% of Latvia’s residents spoke Russian at home, but the language has no official status whatsoever and is considered foreign by Latvia’s authorities despite its deep, pre-1918, historical roots in the country.

Why? Simply put (not sure if Muižnieks would agree), because most ethnic Latvians want to keep Russian out of official business and education, and because there is no one to force them to recognize the linguistic rights of the 37% minority. In the past 20 years, Baltic Russophones have been almost as docile as their linguistic relatives to the East, voting for their own parties but generally preferring to adjust and get the best of what’s been dealt them.

On most social and cultural issues, however, ethnic Latvians and native Russian speakers hold similar views. If there is animosity between them, it seems subdued, more English than Eastern European in its outward display. Suppose a third major community emerged in short order, a community of refugees from the Middle East. Some Russophones would welcome it as a natural ally against the stubborn Latvians, perhaps. But I suspect its arrival would do more to unite the Latvian and Russian speakers against the newcomers, and the new antagonism could express itself in ways less subtle than pursed lips and bitter looks.

This is not to say that refugees should be left to drown in the sea or languish on some bare Mediterranean rock. This is to say that the difficulty of easing the social tension brought by large-scale immigration and mitigating the inevitable ugliness cannot be inferred from the 0.6 to 500 million ratio.


  1. I don’t think people are particularly bothered about the raw numbers, it is more the fact that it will increase – the degree to which is not important – the number of angry young Muslim males in their country. It’s been a long time coming, but Europe’s populations are beginning to feel that they have quite enough of this demographic for the time being.

    • Ironically, the most vocal opponents of accepting large numbers of Syrian refugees hail from Eastern Europe, which has had little experience living alongside that demographics, unlike Germany, France and Scandinavia (Hungary in particular is monoethnic). On the other hand, the Latvian-Ametican Muiznieks is calling for tolerance and diversity in Europe but Latvia has steadfastly refused to recognize some basic rights of more than a third of its residents – and has gotten away with it because its Slavs and Jews have played by the rules, grumbling but learning the language, getting naturalized and expressing their preferences through voting. Not sure it’s going to work with the new wave.

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