In October 2013 the Scottish Review published an article by James Wilkie on the exploding problem of international migration, after a special United Nations survey had revealed that at that date some 232 million people (3.2% of the global population) were on the move outside their own native countries. The recent flood of immigrants into Europe has presented an opportunity to quantify and analyse that movement to a certain extent.
Far from being a tear-jerking tale of women and children fleeing war and oppression (which certainly applies in a proportion of cases that come under the international rules of asylum), the statistical fact is that the greater part of this mass movement of population consists of young men, most of whom are in no way personally endangered in their homelands and are simply seeking a better life in Europe, where they believe the streets are paved with gold.
This has profound implications for the receiving states, where it is causing enormous logistical and budgetary difficulties as well as creating chaos with social, employment, educational, health, law and order and other government policies. This article analyses the background and motivation of the '80%'.
Statistical evaluation of the recent flood of asylum seekers into Europe has now confirmed the impression gained from previous observations: that 80% of them are young men between the ages of 17 and 30 who are travelling singly. This fact has given rise to the oft-repeated and fully justified questions of why this is the case, and what consequences it could have for the countries of reception.
Young men are less averse to risk, they tend to ignore dangers, and above all they are on the search for status. To this end they are prepared to march through deserts on foot for the chance of a fresh start. Something similar happened when the first Europeans started to open up America. There was a growing surplus of men without prospects in Europe, who in 1848, the Year of Revolutions across the continent, tried to overturn the autocratic political order. The movement failed, and those revolutionaries who were not executed emigrated, mostly to the Americas. The history of the wild west with all its violence is also the history of a long-lasting surplus male population.
The search for a New World has for generations sent millions wandering, and in our own age 'the pressure is as strong as ever in a number of countries of origin', as the latest OECD survey puts it. For example, some 44% of Nigerians over the age of 15 want to leave their homeland permanently. In Albania the figure is 39%, in Senegal 37 and in Syria 31%. In almost every country surveyed at least one European state was named among the first three preferred destinations.
These people are dreaming of bettering themselves at a higher level of social standing and material prosperity. Fifteen years ago the United Nations High Commission for Refugees conducted a video campaign to convince Africans that emigration more often than not ends in misery rather than success. But in turbulent times like the present we are apparently confronted with the constant factor of social inequality.
The much-quoted, and increasing, division between north and south, aggravated in part by an unrealistic system of development cooperation, appears almost annually on the agenda of the world economic forum in Davos as one of the most fundamental threats to world peace. We know where the fault-lines lie: along the Mediterranean, in Eastern Europe, and also between the centres and suburbs of so many major cities. There are worlds of a difference between the socially up-market promenades of the centres and the no-go areas of the outskirts, even if they are often joined by the most high-tech underground rail networks.
Now a huge number of young men are swarming northwards, full of energy and an ambition for success, whether as a pizza cook, a footballer, or a gang boss.
The implied invitation by German federal chancellor Angela Merkel in September, to the effect that Germany’s capacity for immigrants 'still had some air on top', was disseminated by WhatsApp right into the slums of Karachi – with the result that young Pakistanis were soon on the bus on the road to points west.
Whether these people are fleeing armed hostilities or simply the lack of any perspective in their lives, many of them dream of achieving a status they will never enjoy at home. If they have no work they will never have their own homes and thus the prospect of marriage. In most traditional societies a man can have a woman partner and a sex-life only through legalised marriage – or through rape, as the many reported cases and the innumerable unpublicised ones of gang rape indicate.
Medical research studies have repeatedly confirmed the internal interaction between male testosterone and social status. Whether the testosterone be regarded as the 'hormone for aggression and domination' or more positively as the 'hormone for care and responsibility', it is always a matter of status. And in the end it is the women who decide the issue by going for men of status and potential success in life, in order to ensure that their offspring will be cared for.
These ancient role models, developed through evolution, still possess their validity in an age of globalisation. The family, with its broad scale of accepted forms, is even increasing in importance, because in difficult and confused times family relationships offer a social security network that the state cannot guarantee. In a world in which millions are forced to survive flight and migration, family relationships that were often prophesied to be on the way out are a considerable source of help. And so, many young men go out into the world in advance, and bring their families along later.
In the spring of 2015 I was caring for three Syrians in their 30s, one of them with a 10-year-old son, who had come to Austria over the Balkan route in February. On their arrival they had known absolutely nothing about Austria, but they were all convinced that they would very shortly be able to acquire houses and cars there. They asked me to have a look out for suitable accommodation. And then they would bring the rest of their families after them.
We carried on an argument in Arabic language, because foreign languages are not normally taught in the Syrian school system. I tried in vain to bring them down to a sense of reality. I asked them why they had not gone to their relatives in Kuwait, where family ties and a common language would offer them far more opportunities in a country that was now going through boom times. They insisted, however, on staying in Austria, where they had already experienced the advanced facilities of the welfare state as well as the ready Austrian assistance.
I kept my distance, especially after the boy’s father declared that he would not allow his son to play with any other children except Muslims. I didn’t even know the religion of the children that I invited into the house, since it didn’t interest me. This again was something that the new arrivals couldn’t understand. They were so different from the Syrians I had got to know during my days as a student in Damascus in 1988. The secular ones are now in the minority; nowadays religion is the core and being of all thinking and acting.
When I first lived in Syria the country had a population of around nine million people. Nowadays there are 22 millions, and the living conditions combined with political repression by the authoritarian police state led to the rebellions in March 2011. In 2002 considerable interest was aroused by the United Nations Development Programme’s report on human development, the first one it had carried out in Arab countries.
Inter alia, it contained a warning by demographers on the likelihood of a rebellion by unemployed youth, because the population of the Arab states had doubled since 1985. The result is that the average age in Jordan is now 18 years, and in most of the others ranges from 20 to 25. At the moment Saudi Arabia has the world’s highest birth rate, and is confronted with massive youth unemployment. The oil riches are presently keeping a lid on the anger of a frustrated youth who, not least due to the Saudi educational system, are becoming ever more receptive to the siren song of the Islamic State (IS).
The birthrate curve in the states of North Africa and the Middle East is now showing a slight tendency downwards, but the challenge remains of finding something for their existing younger citizens to do. The World Bank has come up with a figure of 100 million new jobs that will have to be created over the next 15 to 20 years.
In Egypt alone half a million places have to be found every year to provide training for the younger generation. Egyptian president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, often criticised by Western moralists, is doing at least one thing right: he is having one major building project after the other started, in order to provide manual employment for young men. With the wages they take home they can maybe even afford to marry.
One major dilemma for hundreds of thousands of men in those countries is that they do not have the resources to marry, while the rigid social morals forbid them to have a girlfriend or otherwise relieve their sexual drives. It would be unscientific, and even ridiculous, to reduce all that is happening there – armed conflict, rebellion and emigration – to terms of a hormonal explosion, because there are certainly other social and economic factors involved. But this fundamental human dimension must be taken into account amongst others in the analysis of recent happenings. Many contemporaries have even suggested that the recent massive immigration to Europe will provide a fresh supply of personnel for the care of the elderly. Those who make such suggestions clearly know nothing of human nature.
According to the prophet Kohelet there is nothing new under the sun. Leaving actual revolutions aside, there is plenty of evidence from earlier periods of the tendency of young males to violence, whether due to the circumstances of the time, or simply boredom.
Think of the Crusades. The church saw that it was more productive to make use of the energy of the young men who roamed Europe assaulting each other in gang wars by diverting their aggression onto Levantine 'unbelievers' in the name of the Cross.
And so the history unfolds. The Middle East is alarmingly near to us. One can wander there on foot from Europe, as pilgrims have done since time immemorial. And one can also flee from there on foot when war and religious fanatics make life there intolerable. Angry young men, singly or in the mass, have always made history, and there is no reason to believe that the present mass influx into Europe will be any different.
Dr Karin Kneissl was a diplomat with the Austrian foreign ministry, and now lectures in universities in Austria and Lebanon