Is Europe missing a beat with economic migration?

Faced with a seemingly unstoppable flow of migrants, be they asylum seekers or in search of a safe and better life, Europe’s reaction is increasingly to put up walls and barricades. Putting aside the humanitarian implications of such decisions, particularly in the land of human rights, one can appreciate at least the predicament faced by countries with sluggish economies. How can they support the social cost of this new population, let alone deal with the cultural issues, when their own people are suffering from the hangover of the economic downturn at the end of the previous decade? If it’s hard to deny help to a family with children who have been persecuted in their home country, economic migrants, who are trying to get a better life for themselves and, often, their families back home, have certainly been vilified and turned into the enemy.

Seen from the point of view of a Western expatriate in the UAE, by all accounts an economic migrant, you can only but wonder if politicians and the voters who embrace populist messages are not actually shooting themselves in the foot.

OMD, a communications planning network of the Omnicom Media Group, has recently released the finding of its “Future of the UAE” survey, the latest addition to the global initiative that has seen similar studies in Britain, Spain, Australia, Latin America and others. Designed to assess how people are coping with the repercussions of the downturn and changing their behaviors and attitudes as a result, the exercise has demonstrated some similarities between countries but also some interesting differences.

The UAE has come out, so far, as the most optimistic of all countries, with 93% of the 2,000 respondents declaring being confident about what the future holds. Emiratis were the most confident, even though their country has the largest proportion of foreign-born residents in the world (88%). Since the large majority are in this country by choice rather than by force or desperation, the UAE is largely populated by economic migrants.

Yet, Emiratis aren’t distraught by this fact, quite the opposite. Some in Europe worry about the loss of national identity, a valid concern with the UAE level of expatriate population. As part of its Vision 2021, the UAE government tracks the sense of national identity with an index. Measuring the sense of belonging and pride, it currently is at 90.8% and is targeted to reach 100% by 2021. While the debate about the dilution of faith, language and cultural values does exist, all major freedoms are broadly respected and all communities cohabitate peacefully.

What’s more, both Emiratis and expats want more of the same in the future. On the one hand, 7 in 10 Emiratis believe that the influx of foreigners has proved beneficial both to the country and themselves. How else could the local population of about one million have transformed this desert in the vibrant country and economy that it is today? Consider that even with the recent downgrade, its growth forecast for 2016 still stands above 3%, a level most of its European counterparts can only dream about. In a panel discussion at the launch event for ‘The Future of the UAE”, Emirati commentators and entrepreneurs actually expressed anguish at the risk of a reverse brain-drain, where expatriates would leave the UAE shores to either go to another country or back home.

Unless things change dramatically, they shouldn’t worry. Over two-thirds of respondents to OMD’s survey believe people will keep on coming to and find work in the UAE in the next five years and the overall standard of living will continue to improve.

The UAE is achieving its development goals and its growth because it shares its ambition with its people, locals and expatriates. By giving economic migrants the opportunity to realize their own dream, or at least try, it is benefitting from this energy and drive.

This is something with which the anemic economies of Europe could certainly do and instead of vilifying economic migrants, wherever they come from, they should create the optimal conditions for them, and their local population, to thrive instead.

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