The wider picture: What about Russia?

In 2016, more than a million Middle Eastern refugees went to Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey and another million migrated to the European Union, half of them to Germany. While the annual number of refugees arriving the past two years has declined,  Europe is still choked with more newcomers than it can manage resulting in ominous social and political disruption. 

In his recent meeting with Vladimir Putin, President Trump might have done the world and himself a great favor by persuading Putin to take in a large number of future refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. Were he successful, he might have shown us that his friendliness with Russia had some benefit for Americans and Europeans, as well as just for himself. 

And Russia itself could actually be the beneficiary from a large influx of migrants.

Even shorn of its former Soviet Union dependencies, Russia is still geographically the largest country in the world, yet its population density of 22 persons per sq. mi. is only a quarter that of the U.S. and 1/10th that of Germany. While much of Siberia is inhospitable to dense human settlement, there’s still lots of room in Russia for more people. Russia is blessed with an abundance of natural resources including fossil fuels, minerals, timber, good soils, and, above all, water, the lack of which is fueling much of the conflict in the Middle East and Africa. Russia’s surprisingly underdeveloped agriculture could potentially support a much larger part of its, and the world’s, economy if given more attention. The population of Russia today, at about 143 million, is stable and almost unchanged from what it was 30 years ago. However, with the lowest life expectancy in Europe (men 64, women 76) Russia needs considerable government assistance just to keep the population level from declining.

Nearly 10 percent of Russians are Muslim, of various sects and nationalities, and most are reasonably well integrated into the overall society. Were the Russian government to decide to welcome a significant influx of Middle Eastern and North African refugees, these Islamic Russians would help provide a cultural bridge for refugees that they would not so easily find in Western Europe. Although the Russian government has had problems with Islamic citizens from Chechnya, Georgia and some other former Soviet republics, the current migrants from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries are refugees, not zealous Islamic fighters, and would tend to have a positive attitude toward whoever might take them in. 

While it’s true that most are looking to go to Western Europe and almost none would pick Russia if given a choice, most Western European countries are tightening their borders and Russia has yet to offer to take in any of the asylum seekers from the conflicts in the Middle East. But with a modicum of effort on their government’s part, Russia could be made a reasonably welcoming, appealing destination for refugees.

Russia’s underdeveloped, stagnant economy could be resuscitated by an influx of new, younger immigrants eager to seize the opportunity to improve their lives. Just as impoverished European immigrants came to America over a century ago and “made good”, so might people from the Middle East and North Africa thrive with new possibilities in Russia. Like most refugees from other war-torn countries, the current crop of migrants would most likely gladly accept a life of hard work in exchange for peace and stability. A major infrastructure program, sorely needed after decades of neglect, could help provide employment for new arrivals as well as unemployed Russians.

Nearly one-third of all deaths in Russia are attributable to alcohol, with studies indicating that almost one out of eight Russian adults is alcoholic. In addition, use of hazardous, illegal drugs is widespread and much higher than that throughout Western Europe. By contrast, drug and alcohol abuse is less of a problem among Muslims, whose religious strictures ban the use of alcohol and other intoxicating substances. 

Although popular at home, President Putin and his government are disliked by their European neighbors. But Russia might greatly improve its standing with the rest of the world by taking in a large number of refugees: perhaps half a million, for starters, as Germany did. Such a bold, humanitarian move would reflect favorably on the Russian government and could help gain President Putin the genuine respect from other countries that he has thus far been unable to achieve. 

And President Trump could improve his image, both here and abroad, while trying to justify his friendship with Russia, and take some credit for helping to solve an important and pressing world problem.

Architect Mac Gordon lives in Lakeville and in his spare time is a student of international relations.