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Millions around the world are fleeing repression and violence. Should societies never close their doors to the needy and oppressed?By The New York Times

There hasn’t been a global refugee crisis of the current magnitude since the end of World War II, in 1945. More than 65 million people — the equivalent of one-fifth of the U.S. population — have been forcibly displaced worldwide. Of this group, over 21 million are refugees. In Syria alone 6 million people have left their homes, and another nearly 5 million have fled the country. Both Europe and the United States are in precarious positions: Democracies are fragile, and right-wing anti-immigrant movements bolstered by bigotry and fear are on the rise.

At the Athens Democracy Forum in Greece, convened by The New York Times in September, Roger Cohen, a New York Times op-ed columnist, moderated a discussion with Mario Monti, the former prime minister of Italy; Lucas Papademos, the former prime minister of Greece; and Stavros Lambrinidis, the European Union special representative for human rights. Their conversation centered on the future of migration and what, if any, international obligation we have to welcome, assimilate and protect asylum seekers. An edited and abridged excerpt follows.

Roger Cohen: Given the lessons of World War II and the way doors were closed to refugees in the 1930s, should societies never close their doors to the needy? Are societies sometimes obliged to close the door?

Stavros Lambrinidis: No. I think the door should be open, but migration and refugees have to be managed. It cannot be chaos. Under no circumstances do you shut the door to someone whose only crime is that they were born in a war-torn or impoverished region. At the same time, you must make sure that you address the root causes of these problems; otherwise you just address the symptoms.

We talk about a crisis of refugees in Europe, and I think that’s a terrible misnomer. Primarily it’s a crisis for the millions of men, women and children who have to leave their countries, struggling to get here through human traffickers, often drowning in the sea.

Roger Cohen: But aren’t they refugees?

Stavros Lambrinidis: You’re a refugee when you’re recognized as such. They are asylum seekers. They are leaving their countries and going to a country that is usually closest to where they’re from, because in theory they want to return. The second major crisis is the crisis in the countries they’re coming from. Let us not forget that it is human rights violations primarily — lack of good governance, war, poverty, inequality, corruption — that are drivers for those people to leave.

© Pierre Terdjman/The New York Times

The European Union has to be effective in two ways: applying international responsibilities to protect people who come to its borders through international law, and providing development aid, humanitarian aid and a prospect for people before they leave.

Roger Cohen: How does that apply in Syria, a country that has been destroyed? The very idea of human rights violations seems almost quaint in Syria today. What can the European Union do to stop the outflow of desperate people from that country and many others that are not that different from Syria?

Stavros Lambrinidis: In addition to working to find a peaceful diplomatic solution, we are supporting refugees with hundreds of millions of euros, structures within Syria — government structures, education structures, water supply — everything that will ensure that the country will not collapse on its fundamentals, so that when it’s ready to rebuild politically, it will have the infrastructure to do so. This doesn’t sound sexy.

Roger Cohen: No, it doesn’t.

Stavros Lambrinidis: We’re trying to make sure that the millions of people suffering and displaced in Syria will not be left alone in this crisis. We’re ensuring that when the crisis is over, they will have enough of a structure to be able to build a country and not depend on the kindness of outsiders.

Roger Cohen: Mario Monti, are there moments when Western societies just have to shut the door? The strains are too great, right-wing movements are increasingly vocal, and people are not prepared to accept the sudden volume of foreigners and strangers arriving in their societies.

Mario Monti: If one visits Ellis Island’s museum on immigration, one is led to see in the long term a great positive link between immigration and the diversity, the vibrancy and the growth of a country. There is no question about this.

Roger Cohen: But why does that idea not resonate anymore?

Mario Monti: It doesn’t resonate anymore because of the evolution of our democracies. The reaction of rejection that many people have to immigrants and refugees is perhaps overrepresented. It spreads and conquers the majority of public opinion because of the short-term nature of the political discourse. Politics now in our democratic societies has to be conducted in the framework of the 140 characters of a tweet or in the 10-second sound bite of a televised political debate. This creates an adverse selection in the quality, soundness and wisdom of the arguments.

We leave the taking care about the long term of the economy, of society, to some specialized countries, which so far haven’t shown a preference for democracy. We have the soundest and strongest potential system of governance, but we dilapidate it in narrower and more superficial political competition.

Roger Cohen: Given these pressures, are you saying that the answer has to be no sometimes?

Mario Monti: The European Union has to become strong enough again to dominate those reactions. In a regulated environment you cannot belong to a system based on openness and then select a closure of your choosing. Otherwise you have an even worse backlash.

Roger Cohen: Mr. Papademos, what’s your answer to this question?

Lucas Papademos: In general and in principle, we should not close the doors to the needy and the persecuted — they are two classes of migrants that we’re facing — for humanitarian, democratic, economic and legal reasons. At the same time, I think it is not realistic, and probably not appropriate, to keep the doors totally open.

We have to avoid a repetition of the horrors of the Second World War and the more recent tragic events of innocent people dying in Syria or dying in the Mediterranean as they try to approach our shores. There are also legal obligations that are forgotten. The 1951 Refugee Convention, which was adopted after the Second World War and has been consented to by 145 countries, requires countries to accept refugees and asylum seekers and to accept them if they enter illegally.

My third point regarding why the doors should be open are the economic benefits. I think we underestimate that in the long term migration entails significant economic benefits, which are particularly relevant for Europe. It can strengthen economic growth through labor force increases, particularly in countries that are aging and face serious demographic problems. It can also, as a result of the fact that most immigrants are young and of working age, support public finances and social security systems. Although of course in the short term, there may be adverse effects.

Finally, something that may seem strange to many of you: Migration can play an important role in strengthening innovation and entrepreneurship. I saw some statistics recently that in California, 44% of new startups with a value of at least $1 billion are associated with companies that have been established by people who were not born in the United States.

Roger Cohen: The problem is that when you have Paris and Nice, when you have an ax attack on a train in Germany, it’s all very well to talk about long-term economic benefits, but people are focused on these things that cause alarm. Stavros, in a speech in the United States, you admonished the U.S. for being too concerned that migrant equals terrorist. How do you overcome this fear that is now so prevalent in Western societies?

Stavros Lambrinidis: There are two ways to do it. One, especially in our societies based on reason, is to at least try to use the reasonable argument and talk about what the facts are. When I said that, in America we were discussing whether the U.S. should also accept some Syrian refugees. The argument used by people who don’t want that is primarily the terrorist one. The U.S. has in fact accepted hundreds of thousands of refugees in the past few years, and it has discovered among those only three who were potential security threats.

© Eirini Vourloumis/The New York Times

I submit to you that the world has to begin thinking about security as it did development a few years back and add the magic word: sustainable. Can you really have sustainable security if you arrest thousands of Egyptians with no proof they’re terrorists, simply because they believe in a religion or a movement? You are going to radicalize them when they’re out. You are undermining your own judicial system, which you need in the long term to be successful and stable. Sustainable security, like sustainable development, has to become the new paradigm in the European Union.

Roger Cohen: Mario, what would you say if Chancellor Angela Merkel came to see you in Rome and said, “Mario, I did the right thing, I let in a million refugees and without it the European Union might have fissured even more rapidly than it has. Now I think I’m going to lose the next election because popular opinion is rising up against me. Did I do the wrong thing?”

Mario Monti: I would say to her, “Angela, look at one of your predecessors, Helmut Kohl. He is now remembered in European history as the person who put in place the euro in Germany. He overcame the most difficult obstacle, namely the mental and psychological rejection by the ordinary German citizens to this new currency, which would supplant the much beloved deutsche mark. For doing that, your distinguished predecessor lost the 1998 election to Gerhard Schröder, who campaigned at the time against the euro.

“Are you more
interested in
having another
term of office,
which would
only postpone
the moment
of separation
between you and
power, or would
you like to enter
European history
and German
history in a
highly moral high

Mario Monti

Are you more interested in having another term of office, which would only postpone the moment of separation between you and power, or would you like to enter European history and German history in a highly moral high ground?

Roger Cohen: We’ve seen the British people vote to leave the EU, an extraordinary development. Lucas, how worried are you about the breakup of the European Union under the pressure of mass migration?

Lucas Papademos: I’m quite worried because at present the European Union faces a number of crises simultaneously, one of which is still related to economic weakness. But also the migration crisis has resulted in a big division between countries — north and south, east and west. The migration flows seem to be reasonably contained, but if the pact with Turkey is not adhered to, if the wars persist or if migration flows surge, I think this can play an important role in threatening cohesion in Europe, and the future of Europe.

It’s very important to address the short-term concerns of people, the economic concerns — the high unemployment and the unacceptably high level of inequality within the European countries — and make sure they don’t overshadow the long-term benefits of immigration.

For the refugee policy to be effective, it’s important that there is not only an efficient strategy in place, but there is good burden-sharing, so that the burden faced by countries like Italy and Greece, which receive a large number of refugees and migrants because of proximity, is better addressed. Do I think it’s likely, especially after Brexit, that the EU, in particular the eurozone, can break up? I would say that although the probability is higher, it is still an unlikely event.

Stavros Lambrinidis: Could Europe collapse because of migration? My answer is a resounding no. I was stunned that one of the first things the Brexiters disavowed after the vote was that somehow the flow of migrants in the U.K. would change in any dramatic way.

If Europe is in a potential crisis, that’s not so much a crisis of particular policies as a crisis of values. So many economists around the world were looking at the euro and saying it was economically crazy and not going to work. Yet it is still, in spite of the huge economic crisis facing Europe, one of the strongest currencies in the world. Why? Because the euro was built as a policy on a very solid basis of values. The notion that Europe was a solitary union and that we all felt that our belonging to it multiplied our benefits at a national level made policies — even policies that were perhaps perceived as shaky — very capable of taking ground. On the other hand, you consider migration and it’s a very sound policy, so you would think allocating more than 2 million people in 28 member states would be an easy thing to do.

Roger Cohen: When there are more than 2 million refugees in Turkey and they make up nearly 20% of the population of Lebanon.

Stavros Lambrinidis: It’s not taking root easily. I submit to you that that’s because now we have a quicksand of values. Migration is a global issue, not a European one, which is why when I was in the United States, I discussed it. If you have to fight war and human rights violations in countries, you have to make sure that you do so globally.

© 2016 The New York Times
Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate