Comment Comment and Features

Our hearts are leading us astray on the refugee crisis

A Pakistani migrant stranded on the Greek island of Lesbos sits beside a memorial cross (AP)

I am writing this on a boat between two countries. Beyond this superficial similarity, my circumstances could scarcely be more different from those refugees crossing the Mediterranean. I am coming home to a life of comfort and security; they are leaving home, where life was very different.

The Pope has just been to meet boat people who have reached Lesbos; his visit was an eloquent affirmation of the dignity of the human spirit and the universal span of the Christian conscience. The plight of the millions of Syrians displaced by conflict indeed demands our generosity of spirit. But generosity is not enough: our responses must be grounded in wisdom. The headless heart may lead to outcomes little better than the heartless head. I believe that the surge of the heart has momentarily overwhelmed the slow effort of the head: Christian reactions to refugees and migration are in a state of moral confusion, while failing to address the true needs.

The 10 million Syrians displaced from their homes by conflict, and the 60 million globally, should trigger in us a duty of rescue. That duty, typified by that of a passer-by seeing a child drowning in a pond, is to do what is in our power to restore life to normality. Regardless of the inconvenience, we drag the child out of the pond, get it dry and return it to its parents. Syrians displaced from their homes have needs that are a little more complex. They are fleeing their homes because their town is being bombed, is about to be overrun by ISIS or is being taken over by a gang of armed men. Put yourself in that position: what would you want? What I would want is a safe haven until peace had returned, and meanwhile, as best as possible, the preservation of my community of refugees and the retention of personal autonomy.

Half of those displaced from their homes are still in Syria: the borders are periodically closed so it can be difficult to get out. This tells us that the first requirement of the global duty of rescue is to ensure that neighbouring countries provide safe havens. This is indeed a basic requirement of international law. All the displaced who have left Syria have done so by crossing into Jordan, Turkey or Lebanon, where they have been given safe haven. An unambiguous part of Europe’s duty of rescue has been to meet the financial cost of providing these havens. Shamefully, we have not done so: the governments of these middle-income countries were left to bear the bulk of the burden.

Once in the havens, refugees have the option of living in camps run by the UN refugee agency UNHCR, where they are housed and fed. Few opt for the camps; most prefer to preserve their autonomy by scratching a living illegally in the cities. This choice should alert us to the inadequacy of the standard UNHCR approach: what refugees need is the right to work in these havens, not a life without autonomy in the camps.

Governments of haven countries are often understandably wary of letting refugees work, because their own workers would object. However, the government of Jordan has offered to create 150,000 work permits for Syrian refugees as long as European firms create new jobs for them. The idea is to harness globalisation for good: the firms would bring jobs to Jordan’s Industrial Zones, and sell the output in Europe. This is not as difficult as it sounds: European firms have been operating in just this way in places such as Poland and Turkey for years. A remote Turkish town now produces half the world’s synthetic carpets. And Europe’s duty of rescue need not be confined to governments; it should also be met by European businesses. CEOs, not just politicians, need to be held to account.

But surely, you might be thinking, isn’t Europe’s primary duty of rescue simply to open our doors as the German Chancellor Angela Merkel did? I will argue that, on the contrary, doing so has compounded the tragedy by breaching another fundamental moral principle: “thou shall not tempt”.

Many people in poorer countries would like to live in Europe: life here is far more comfortable than in their home countries. All the Syrians coming to Europe were previously in safe havens. Most left Syria because their homes had become unsafe. But since the open door, others have left Syria in part through being tempted to seize the opportunity of that open door. Those leaving for Europe are disproportionately the young, male and middle-class, as places bought from people-traffickers are expensive. These are the very people Syria will most need during its post-conflict recovery, but once comfortably ensconced in Europe, they are unlikely to go back. Chancellor Merkel has just decreed that they must learn German and start integrating: quite the opposite of preserving normality. Young refugees off the boats have been quoted as saying “Syria is finished”.

The temptation of Europe has encouraged such attitudes, which are neither right nor ethical. Societies recover from conflict, and the people with the energy and hope that bring about that recovery are the true heroes.

The president of Afghanistan, an economist, has voiced the same criticism of the open door. The Afghans coming to Europe have often paid many thousands of dollars to people-traffickers. They are not the poor, but rather the people best placed to rebuild their country.

The chaotic conditions created by Europe’s open door have been seized by thousands of economic migrants from around the world who have determined to try their luck. These people have crowded out the needs of the genuine refugees. Worse, having been lured onto boats by the temptations of Europe and the blandishments of the traffickers, thousands have drowned. The offer of open borders without safe means of reaching them was, inadvertently, irresponsible.

Our response to this wave of economic migration has encountered a further layer of moral confusion: is there not a moral right to immigrate? Aren’t border controls inherently selfish and racist? I think not: there are three powerful ethical arguments in support of restrictions on immigration.

The first is concern for the interests of Europe’s poor. The nation states of Europe are highly unusual in having built shared identities that have enabled generous welfare systems to be seen as in the “common interest”. Recent research by Professor David Rueda of Oxford has found that across Europe, the higher the proportion of immigrants in the society, the less willing are those earning above-average income to support transfers to the poor. Because of this undermining of fellow feeling for the less fortunate, rapid immigration would probably pose a threat to poor households.

Nations are not moral abominations, nor dinosaurs of bigotry. The likely alternative to fellow feeling for the millions of nationals is not fellow feeling for the billions of global humanity, but a retreat into individualism, selfishness and alienation. Hence, part of the ethical case for migration controls is that those Europeans on above-average incomes do not have the moral right to sacrifice the interest of their poorer fellow citizens. Nor should they dismiss the concerns of the poor as mere symptoms of racism.

A common sleight-of-hand by those advocating a right to immigrate is to infer it from the right to emigrate. Clearly, the few governments that deny a right to emigrate are denying a basic human freedom. But the right to emigrate from one country does not imply the right to immigrate to any other country of choice. Try the argument at a personal level: I do not have the right to prevent my spouse from leaving home; but that does not give her the right to come and live in your home.

At the national level, the ethics becomes apparent if a non-European case is considered, such as Botswana or Singapore. Fifty years ago both countries were poor. Through their own efforts they have prospered. Other societies in their regions, with better opportunities, have fallen behind. Should Nigerians and Indonesians, both of whose societies have squandered many billions of dollars of oil revenues, have the right to migrate to them? If so, Botswana and Singapore would probably be changed beyond recognition. As it is, both governments restrict entry and it is hard to see this as morally unreasonable.

A final ethical consideration is the interests of those left behind. I recall a tortured email from an elderly Ghanaian reader of Exodus, my book about how migration is changing our world. He had left his village as a young man and moved to America where he had become a successful doctor. He wrote to say that at the time he left he had barely given a thought to those remaining in his village. Now he looked back on his behaviour not with a sense of triumph, but with guilt: he had walked away. Like him, the economic migrants from poor countries are disproportionately young, educated and enterprising.

They leave their societies in order to better their own circumstances. While this is a triumph of economic freedom, it is self-serving. Migrants make remittances, but on average they are a mere $1,000 per year. We should accept that behaviour, and of course behave decently towards the immigrants living in our societies. But their relocation is not iconic of compassion. The true icons are those capable people who choose to stay and help their less able fellow citizens. Europe’s open borders have inadvertently tempted such people to abandon their responsibilities towards those who need them.

“It is not enough,” the Pope said in Lesbos, “to limit ourselves to responding to emergencies as they arise. Instead, we need to encourage political efforts that are broader in scope and multilateral.” David Cameron has in fact exemplified just such an approach. He worked with the King of Jordan and the World Bank to implement the vital components of an effective duty of rescue.

The London Conference in February, which Cameron hosted, raised the billions needed to compensate the governments of Syria’s neighbours for providing safe haven. It also launched the jobs programme: it was a British minister, not a German, who was instructed to take CEOs to the Industrial Zones to see what is possible. Britain has also led the pressure for the Trade Directorate of the European Commission to relax import restrictions on refugee-produced goods. Meanwhile, Chancellor Merkel has done a deal with President Erdoğan of Turkey to take back refugees who have reached Greece, and to curtail further exit from Turkey.

When Cameron decided that the Syrian refugees that Britain takes should be provided with safe passage direct from the camps, Merkel was apparently furious: her priority was to shift elsewhere some of the refugees who had already reached Germany. Which of them has truly revealed sound moral leadership? What should be the considered position of the Church?

Sir Paul Collier is Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University.

This article first appeared in the April 22 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To download the entire issue for free with our new app, go here.