Popular fears aside, U.K. businesses often eager for migrant workers

Well-educated foreigners help offset aging population

LONDON (Reuters) — Raghad al Sous braved bombings in Syria to keep studying at school before fleeing in 2013 to rejoin her mother, who had been granted refugee status in Britain.

She is now about to start studying at university with the hope of becoming a hospital pharmacist.

"I had to walk to school and take the risk of being kidnapped but I kept on going because I knew that I had to get a qualification," al Sous said.

Two years after moving from Damascus to Huddersfield in northern England, the 19 year-old's plans for a well-paid career contrast with concerns among some Britons that migrants are a drag on the country's economy and public services.

"I feel like I have to pay back the favour that this country has given me," she said. "They saved my life. I can't thank the U.K. enough."

Across Europe, employers have largely welcomed a stream of young and often well-educated foreign workers who are helping to offset the aging of the population.

Britain this week said net migration levels hit a record high of 330,000 in the year to March as workers from other EU countries and from outside the bloc flocked to take up jobs.

While media said the figures showed a failure of control by the government, the Institute of Directors, an employers group, said half its members companies employed immigrants because of their skills and said UK public services depended on them.

The situation is less clear for many of the hundreds of thousands of people from the Middle East, Africa and Asia who, unlike documented migrants, are trying to dodge border controls to enter Europe.

Non-governmental organizations in Germany say that many of those fleeing the war in Syria and from Iran and Iraq appear to be well educated, making them potentially attractive to employers in their host countries.

Germany's government expects the number of refugees and asylum-seekers to quadruple this year to 800,000, part of the biggest refugee crisis seen in Europesince World War Two.

Berlin has responded by sending government officials to emergency shelters to speed up skills assessments and language training for those likely to be allowed to stay in the country.

"The hope is to open the labor market more for refugees," Harald Loehlein, head of migration at Paritatische, an umbrella organization of German NGOs, said. "It is because of the demographic trends. Everybody knows we need more migrants."


But the images of crowds pouring over borders in eastern Europe are likely to keep concerns about immigration high.

A survey by the European Commission published in July showed immigration jumped to the top of the list of worries for people across Europe, overtaking concerns about the economy.

In France, employers say they cannot match the enthusiasm in Germany for hiring foreign workers because France's unemployment rate of more than 10 per cent is double that of Germany.

"We don't have enough jobs for the French people. It's easier to give jobs to migrant people in Germany," Pierre Gattaz, head of French employers group Medef, said.

Britain's government also says it is sticking to its plan to bring net migration under 100,000 a year — less than a third of the current rate — and its foreign minister recently said African migrants posed a threat to Europe's standard of living.

Yet academic research often points to a positive impact from immigration for developed economies.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development estimates that migrants accounted for 70 per cent of the increase in Europe's workforce in the 10 years to 2014.

European employers say they need more foreign workers to fill a range of jobs from highly-skilled positions to lower-paid menial positions that native Europeans no longer want to take.

At the same time, researchers mostly say immigrants contribute more in taxes than they take in state benefits, a positive for governments many of which are still struggling to get their public finances in order after the financial crisis.

A study by University College London found immigrants to Britain, from within the EU and beyond, represented a net positive for the public accounts, and brought with them qualifications that would have cost nearly seven billion pounds in education spending in Britain.

Furthermore, immigrants were less likely to claim benefits than native Britons, the study found.

Critics of the UCL research said it underestimated the cost of providing public services to migrants.

Aware of the public's concerns about overloading schools and hospitals, campaigners say governments should invest the extra tax revenues generated by migrantworkers in public services and infrastructure.

But Christian Dustmann, one of the researchers who wrote last year's UCL report, said that while little information was available on the new arrivals, some early signs were positive.

"Many of the people who are seeking refugee status are very highly educated and would probably be very productive and they are young," Dustmann said.

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