The migration flow from the war-torn countries of the Middle East and North Africa increasingly threatens the stability of Europe, putting the EU under intense demographic pressure.

A migrant woman walks past a banner that reads: "Open the Borders" during the protest demanding the opening of the border between Greece and Macedonia in the northern Greek border station of Idomeni, Greece, March 22, 2016. Photo: AP

The problem of the global migration crisis has been on the agenda for quite some time now, generating wide public discussion and forcing European policymakers to choose between two entirely different policies: restricting or encouraging the flow of refugees from the war-torn regions of the world.

The latest development in the EU’s effort to deal with the influx of refugees is the upcoming Oct. 2 referendum in Hungary, which is widely considered to be one of the countries hardest hit by the influx. The referendum will ask voters the following question: Do you want to allow the EU to mandate the resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens into the country without the approval of the Hungarian National Assembly?

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, by the end of 2015 the global number of refugees reached the highest number ever recorded – 16.1 million men, women and children – the majority of which (54 percent) came from just three war-torn countries ­– Syria (4.9 million), Afghanistan (2.7 million) and Somalia (1.1 million).

“The total number of refugees has increased for the fifth consecutive year, from 10.4 million at the end of 2011 – a 55 percent rise in just four years. This increase was driven mainly by the conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic, which accounted for more than half of new refugees in 2015,” reads the UN report.

Europe has hosted the second-largest number of refugees (trailing only sub-Saharan Africa), at just below 4.4 million, an increase of 1.3 million (41 percent) from the previous year. In 2015, the majority (58 percent) of refugees in Europe resided in Turkey (2.5 million), mostly from Syria and Iraq. Other countries in the EU hosting large numbers of refugees include Germany (316,100), France (273,100), Sweden (169,500), the United Kingdom (123,100), and Italy (118,000).

What if the flow of refugees continues to grow further? Will the neighboring regions be able to host more and more people who are seeking asylum?

Zhanna Zayonchkovskaya, leading research fellow at the Institute of Demography of the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, is deeply worried about the situation.

At a conference organized by the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) and the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA) on Sept. 22-23, she spoke of the necessity to think about ways to deal with the current crisis and be prepared to face a global movement of large populations that might happen by the end of this century.

“One cannot ignore the international migration trends. I think that the global system for migration law is also going through a crisis. Notwithstanding all the efforts being made by the UN and other international actors, such a situation is unlikely to be resolved completely. It seems to me, that the times are coming when, like 2,000 years ago, the future of the world will be determined by the demographic situation. And nothing can be done to reverse the migration trends that will be taking place this century,” she argued.

According to the expert, regulations can only be effective when people are willing to comply with them, but when this is not the case, as shown by the recent influx of refugees to Europe, nothing can be done to control the process. Turkey and other countries are taking millions of refugees, but if the influx grows, they will not be able to cope with it.

“My forecast is unfortunately quite depressing for the world by the end of this century. I think that our grandchildren will face a challenging time seeing the movement of large numbers of people, who will not react to our efforts to control this process as usual. In the same way, the Roman Empire failed to do it previously. Back then we saw two centuries of perturbations and the eventual demise of the Roman legacy. I think something similar will happen in the second part of this century. So I think it’s necessary to get ready for this in advance and come up with brand new approaches to deal with this challenge. Legislative means will not help,” Zayonchkovskaya says.

Vyacheslav Postavnin, president of the Migration 21st century Foundation, and Jack Goldstone, professor of Public Policy at George Mason University, both share her position. All of the major powers in Europe have fallen under the pressure of demographic factors and members of the EU are facing the same challenge, they believe.

Demographic factors now pose a potential challenge to the Western world, Postavnin suggested at the conference. “All powerful empires fell under demographic pressure.”

The Roman Empire was one of the victims of migration: Being overwhelmed by the migration of tribes fleeing the expansion of Slavic groups eastward, Rome first incorporated some of these tribes into their own border forces, but then found they could neither wholly integrate them or keep them separate, Goldstone explained to Russia Direct.

Something similar could potentially happen to Europe today, as large number of refugees fleeing violence or economic and climate crises try to reach a more stable region. “Europe has in fact now tried to make deals with Turkey to keep the hordes out, but the deal is not effective nor stable,” said the expert.

Where Russia and the West could work together is in the humanization of migration policies, especially in Russia. Postavnin suggests that it is necessary to change the attitudes toward migrants. “A migrant is not a potential terrorist, but a person who faced a difficult situation, sometimes not even created by his or her state, so one should treat him (or her) differently,” he argues.

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On the other hand, the expert proposes looking at the problem as a more positive economic factor. According to him, migrants officially account for around 10 percent of GDP in Russia, so this should also be taken into account.

“Europe’s best hope is to try to manage the immigrant flow by keeping the numbers to a level where meaningful integration can be achieved, and by making major efforts to give language, job, and social integration skills to the migrants already there and those who will enter in the coming years,” Goldstone suggests.

He also suggests that in the current situation reducing the factors that provoke migration and refugee outflow will be most helpful. Ensuring the resilience of war-torn states and political stability in the Middle East and North Africa should be the main objectives for international actions in the short term. If not, Europe will continue to suffer from the influx of refugees from this region.

The role of Russia and the U.S. here should involve cooperation with Brussels to set up multilateral aid and assistance agencies to improve conditions and prospects in “at risk” areas. “Brokering peace in the Middle East and with India and Pakistan, cooperating with China for economic development in the One Belt One Road regions and Africa, are vital,” Goldstone concludes.