The continuing conflict in Syria has resulted in heartbreaking stories and images of Syrian refugees trying to reach Europe. Dangerous journeys in overloaded rafts and treks across Eastern Europe have claimed lives and caused incredible hardships. Syrian refugees have been joined by refugees from other conflicted areas such as Eritrea, Iraq, and Afghanistan to form a massive influx of European asylum-seekers.
According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN refugee agency, 480,000 migrants have arrived in Greece and Italy since the beginning of the year and many others are arriving via Eastern Europe. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) expects Germany alone to receive 800,000 requests for asylum. Refugee numbers throughout all of Europe will surely be over 1 million.
Why do refugees prefer Europe instead of the richer nations in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates? According to an NPR report, part of the reason is in these governments' refusal to accept the legal concept of refugees, dating back to the Palestinian displacement from the early days of Israel's inception.
However, these countries do accept refugees under work visas, and have donated millions of dollars to support refugees in nearby states such as Jordan and Turkey. Many refugees assess the work visa and citizenship situation and prefer to take the dangerous journey to Europe to face an uncertain but more hopeful future.
In such a dynamic situation, it is hard to assess the costs fully. However, there are at least some estimates available. The European Commission (EC) is spending 980 million euros on relocation efforts, which is a drop in the eventual bucket according to Demetris Papademetriou, the President of the European office of the Migration Policy Institute. Papademetriou estimates that the short-term costs throughout the EU will be "in the billions — and in all probability in the tens of billions."
Given that the collective GDP of Europe is around $1.8 trillion, the costs are significant but not crippling. The real question is how refugees will be distributed throughout the EU, as not all countries are willing to, or economically able to, absorb large numbers of refugees.
Germany has reportedly set aside $6.6 billion to accommodate its expected 800,000 asylum-seekers. Federal Minister of Labour and Social Affairs Andrea Nahles puts the expected cost to Germany of caring for and assimilating refugees at between 1.8 billion euros to 3.3 billion euros in 2016 alone. Fortunately, Germany has a 21.1 billion-euro budget surplus as of mid-August and will likely be able to accommodate its expected allotment of refugees.
Britain's costs in caring for asylum-seekers are 700,000 British pounds per day, according to a report in March 2015. Meanwhile, France is setting up a migrant camp expected to cost 6 million Euros, with unknown operating costs to keep the camp running for as long as needed.
As of this writing, meetings were taking place to determine an equitable distribution of refugees throughout the EU countries while the EU Executive Commission is trying to assess the full economic cost and how the European Investment Bank can help.
As costly as it may be, failing to address the current European refugee situation is not an option. Simply sticking refugees into camps that turn into de facto long-term housing is not the solution — all that will do is breed resentment and further desperation that will have long-term economic and security consequences. Unfortunately, given the current geopolitical situation, we are likely to see a continued flood of refugees into the West and continued short-term economic burdens.