As hundreds of Germans held up "Welcome Refugees" signs last weekend, much of Europe watched in bewilderment. “Germany is the only country that is welcoming us,” said Alalie, a 37-year-old from Damascus, Syria, and one of the thousands of refugees who arrived at the main train station in Munich.
The reasons are many, but one stands out: demographics. In Germany, for instance, a rapidly aging population is becoming increasingly aware of the need to welcome foreigners. Other countries, where the aging trend is much less severe, have fewer incentives to welcome newcomers.
A closer look at the following maps, which compare demographic trends across Europe between 2001 and 2011, helps explain some of the reasons Europe is so divided on how to deal with refugees. The maps not only offer explanations: They also show which nations might be missing out on an opportunity for future growth.
Germany welcomes refugees to ease its rapid population decline
Empathy and the country's Nazi-past — which turned Europe into a battlefield and later forced many Germans themselves to flee the war — might explain the country's enthusiasm for helping today's refugees. But there is another factor that few would openly acknowledge right away: Germany really needs them.
"What we're experiencing right now is something that will occupy and change our country in the coming years. We want this change to be positive," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Monday. She was referring to a popular argument in the country's discourse on immigration in recent months: Germany is shrinking rapidly, and the trend is expected to get worse in the coming years. By 2060, there will be only about 68 million to 73 million people in Germany, according to current predictions by the country's statistical office — compared with about 81 million now.
Already today, Germany lacks young, skilled workers. Companies are unable to fill hundreds of thousands of jobs because they cannot find enough applicants. On Sunday, Dieter Zetsche, the head of car manufacturer Daimler, said in a newspaper interview: "Most refugees are young, well educated and highly motivated. Those are exactly the people we're searching for." European Muslims are indeed on average eight years younger than the rest of the population, a Pew Research Center study found. Daimler and other companies now want to search for applicants in refugee reception centers to fill their vacancies. Meanwhile, a first job portal has been launched on a Web site that is supposed to connect refugees with potential employers.
The influx of refugees could also benefit German society as a whole. The country's welfare system — one of the world's most generous — is increasingly strained because more retirees have to be financed by fewer working-age and tax-generating citizens. Today, there are three working-age Germans per retiree. By 2060, however, that ratio will be less than 2 to 1, according to the European Commission. In a recent op-ed, Astrid Ziebarth of the German Marshall Fund, a think tank, called Germany's response to the refugee crisis "as pragmatic as idealistic." Many Germans might support the influx of refugees for moral reasons right now, but economic reasons might become a bigger part of the political debate in the future, when the challenges of the sudden increase in immigrants become more apparent.
Sweden takes in many refugees, but for different reasons
Such economic thinking makes Germany distinct from Sweden, which has recently taken in the highest number of refugees in Europe per capita, despite having a population that isn't declining. Its government has historically been among the world's most accommodating when it comes to refugees, which explains Sweden's quick reaction in the current crisis. Although the Swedish government allows asylum-seekers to work immediately, chances of finding a long-term job are low. Nearly half of all foreign-born people ages 25 to 64 are unemployed.
"There just aren't many jobs anymore for the very low-skilled," Tino Sanandaji, a Swedish economist with the Research Institute of Industrial Economics, was quoted as saying by Al Jazeera English. In contrast, most unfilled jobs in Germany are offered by technical manufacturers and do not require previous knowledge because workers will be taught in apprenticeship programs. Whereas Germans are particularly looking for engineers and workers with technical skills, many Swedish job vacancies require either European higher education degrees or excellent knowledge of the Swedish language.
Britain already has one of Europe's most diverse and stable populations
Britain is among Europe's demographic exceptions: It is predicted to become Europe's most populous country by 2060 thanks to immigration and fertility rates that are higher than most of its neighbors, according to the European Commission.
Despite Germany's efforts to attract foreigners and Britain's reluctance to do so, current forecasts predict a migrant proportion of 14 percent for Britain, but only 9 percent for Germany by 2060. In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron has recently focused on a resettlement program for 20,000 additional refugees that would allow in some of the weakest. British commentators have said this strategy puts moral considerations over economic interests, obviously referring to Germany.
Suggestions that Britain is acting more morally than Germany and Austria might sound cynical in those countries: Last weekend alone, 20,000 refugees arrived in Munich, the same number of people Britain now wants to additionally resettle within five years.
Nevertheless, the British government's stance is supported by a majority of the population. Fears of economic competition and worries over being able to assimilate more foreign-born migrants could explain why such sentiments persist.
France is cautious because of a persistent rift within its society
Like Britain, France is among the few countries in Europe with a growing population, thanks to immigration and a high fertility rate. What is particularly striking about the country is its nationwide population growth, even in rural areas.
Meanwhile, the country is on persistently high alert: In Paris and in the rest of the country, police officers and soldiers patrol the streets to prevent potential terror attacks. January's attacks targeting a Jewish supermarket and editors critical of Islam have not helped to bridge the rift between France's growing immigrant population and its white majority. Although only 7.5 percent of the French population is Muslim, conservative politicians are worried about changes in demographics: Jean-Francois Cope, who later became the president of France's major UMP party, said in 2012: "There are areas where children cannot even eat their 'pains au chocolat' because it's Ramadan." Cope was referring to a story about a non-Muslim child whose chocolate pastry was snatched during the Muslim month of fasting.
Being confronted with such provocative statements, President François Hollande continued to follow the country's guidelines to regard all citizens as equal. What might sound like a logical and supportive idea has worrying implications. Many French migrants feel neglected by the country's government because the "all citizens are equal" approach has until recently limited most affirmative action programs. Such programs, which are common in the United States, would be necessary to help sons and daughters of migrants escape poverty and job discrimination. France, however, does not collect data on its citizens' race, ethnicity or religion, which has made it difficult to prove discrimination.
However, smaller studies have shown that applicants with foreign-sounding names have much lower chances of getting jobs, and another survey documented a feeling among many children of immigrants that they are not considered as French by others.
In France, it might be not so much the absence of migrants that is a threat to its future, but rather the government's difficulties in finding a way to assimilate and support a large share of the country's neglected population. All this explains why the French willingness to accept more refugees will likely remain fairly limited.
Hungary — and much of eastern Europe — is missing out on a demographic opportunity
Contrary to France, many Eastern European countries face a population decline. Nevertheless, they refuse to take in more refugees. Hungary, which has recently built a border fence, has become the most prominent case: The country's prime minister claimed last week that he was defending European Christianity against a Muslim influx. “Everything which is now taking place before our eyes threatens to have explosive consequences for the whole of Europe,” he wrote in the op-ed. "We must acknowledge that the European Union’s misguided immigration policy is responsible for this situation."
The country's demographic decline, however, could also be considered critical: By 2030, Hungary's population will have decreased by 5.8 percent. The country is among Eastern Europe's most rapidly shrinking nations. Others are performing even worse: Demographic research institute Infostat recently concluded that Slovakia was rapidly aging and concluded its society had "to be prepared for ... the integration of a higher number of foreigners (often from very different cultures)." In recent days, Slovakia made headlines for exactly the opposite approach: It publicly announced it would accept only Christian refugees — no Muslims. Other countries with similar demographic forecasts, among them Estonia and Bulgaria, also want to limit the influx of Muslim refugees.
There might be reasons for such thinking: high unemployment and weak economic performance, for instance. Academically, there's no consensus on whether population growth always leads to economic growth. However, Eastern Europe's policies will not simply be forgotten: Countries like Hungary and Slovakia probably won't attract many Muslim migrants in the future, even if they should suddenly realize they urgently need younger foreigners.
Migrants’ desperate quest to cross into Europe