Only 27 percent of refugees to Europe are female.

Photographer: JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images

Europe's Wave of Migration Brought Too Many Men

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
Read More.
a | A

There’s a lot of interesting data on Europe’s wave of refugees in Pew’s latest report. But here’s a piece of information that is not so much interesting as disturbing: Only 27 percent of those refugees are female. In every age group, from nearly every country of origin, women are greatly outnumbered. And the difference is even more pronounced for immigrants from Africa, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. Gambia, Bangladesh and Pakistan, for example, sent virtually no women at all. Over all, refugee men outnumber refugee women nearly two to one.

There are two scenarios that can unfold from this fact. The first is that destination countries simply end up with an imbalance between the number of men and women in their populations. That would be a problem; even slightly out-of-whack gender demographics can have substantial social impacts. The refugees -- already predisposed to experience isolation, disconnection and disaffection from their host society -- will thus also bear the desperation of men who have little hope of forming a long-term relationship with a woman and starting a family. This is a recipe for disaster.

So why not allow additional women to emigrate from these men’s countries of origin? This would aggravate another set of problems.

Just last year, several of the more popular destinations for immigration saw their foreign population shares increase by more than 1 percentage point. (The U.S. has long been the world’s most popular destination for immigrants. For comparison, it saw a similar increase over 10 years, from 2005 to 2015.) To allow enough additional women to fix the gender imbalance would imply something like another half-percentage-point increase, over a very short period of time.

I am, as I have frequently noted in this column, a big fan of immigration. But cultures, particularly homogenous cultures, do need some time to absorb and assimilate the migrant flows. Last year’s refugee wave strained both the political and social systems of many countries. Increasing it by half again, or a third again, in short order, might bring those systems to the breaking point.

Unfortunately, at this point there aren’t any good options left. The people are there; Europe cannot go back and demand a more gender-balanced migrant wave. It could deny the bulk of those applications and send most of those men back where they came from.  But that’s unlikely; both EU refugee policy and a lot of the political class are publicly committed to sheltering a lot of these people. It would be difficult indeed to suddenly backpedal on those commitments.

It would also be politically difficult to radically increase immigration (by women) as a response to the wave of immigration (by men). But a short-term political challenge is far preferable to a simmering societal meltdown.

  1. Well, theoretically. There is that pesky matter of international law. See "non-refoulement."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net