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How tens of thousands of migrants could help save Europe

Syrian refugees walk among fields in the border town of Idomeni, northern Greece, to enter Macedonia on Wednesday Aug. 26, 2015. The U.N. refugee agency said it expects 3,000 people to cross Macedonia daily in the coming days as Greece has borne the brunt of a record number of refugees and migrants heading to Europe. (AP Photo/Santi Palacios)

Europe's startling refugee crisis, unparalleled perhaps since World War II, has generated all sorts of alarmist headlines. A right-wing British tabloid bemoaned the "swarms" flooding across the Channel. Anti-immigration protesters in Germany have attacked asylum centers for recent arrivals. Faced with a dramatic influx, the Hungarian government accelerated the construction of a border fence and warned that it could deploy its military against tens of thousands making the the trek to safe havens in the European Union.

But, at least in one Eastern European nation, some are seeing the influx as a potential boon.

In Serbia, one of the countries that has become a major pathway for thousands of mostly Middle Eastern migrants, including many refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war, a top government official has suggested allowing hundreds to settle in the country's underpopulated villages.

[Slovakia will take 200 Syrian refugees, but only if they are Christian.]

According to Reuters, Serbia's population has dropped more than 5 percent since 2002, a consequence of a low birth rate and emigration of young workers to more prosperous nations. Some population projections anticipate further dramatic dips in Eastern Europe's population over the coming decades.

Unlike Hungary, Serbia is not inside the European Union and its Schengen zone, which permits passport-free travel within its borders. Around 100,000 migrants have so far crossed into Serbia this year -- the vast majority hoping to journey further west.

"We should consider offering them to stay in the parts of Serbia that are empty," Brankica Jankovic, Serbia’s Commissioner for Protection of Equality, told a local TV station on Tuesday. She suggested that "a selection [of refugees] should be made," who would be put under "a detailed security screening.”

It's not a totally outlandish thought. Latino immigration to the United States, for example, has led to the re-population of a host of small rural towns in that were on the verge of dying out.

Earlier this year, Italian writer Silvia Marchetti proposed her country adopt similar measures in order to revive some of Italy's 6,000 reputed ghost towns, hollowed out over centuries and generations of war, disaster and migration. Similar abandoned communities exist over other stretches of southern and eastern Europe, where birth rates are in sharpest decline -- and economic stagnation most acute.

"Migrants could help to recover fields for agricultural use, open new artisan shops and boutiques, or hotels and restaurants which could have a positive impact on tourism," Marchetti wrote.

Of course, such suggestions run counter to the dominant narrative on the continent, which is in part animated by populist fears over Muslim immigration and grumbling from some nations -- particularly governments in Eastern Europe -- over having to cope with a crisis not of their own making.

Jankovic's proposal was met with skepticism by some.

"Settling migrants in empty areas, even with their consent, is ridiculous," a Belgrade-based analyst told Reuters. "How would they integrate into society living in the parts of the country with no economy and no people?"

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