The news recently has been full of the migration crisis, with politicians, commentators and the public alike all wringing their hands in anguish at the human tragedy, while at the same time struggling to come up with any comprehensive solutions. Opinions have also been divided between those who think all migrants/refugees should be welcomed with open arms, and those who think Europe is already full and more arrivals represent an existential threat to our future. Sadly as time has gone on the issue has become ever-more emotional, and the fact that a single image of a drowned child can shift public (and thence political) opinion so profoundly, shows how out-of-control and illogical the debate has become.
In my view a lot of highly-significant facts have been completely omitted from the discussion so far, and with this article I am going to try and rectify that, by bringing some very important information back into the debate.
The first thing to say is that it is in my view completely wrong to frame all the arguments around the needs of refugees, without even considering the impact on the native populations of the countries they are fleeing to. To dismiss such concerns as irrelevant or, even worse, racist, is to effectively ignore the needs and desires of vast numbers of ordinary people. Such blinkered thinking can only lead to resentment and, if left to fester, will store up massive and serious problems for the future. It is absolutely obvious that the arrival of large numbers of people from different societies and cultures will potentially lead to massive (and potentially unwanted) changes in the society in which they are arriving. Such changes should be recognised and carefully managed, with due consideration being given to the impact on the local population. That is why in so many countries refugees live in separate camps, because the native populations, while happy to provide a safe space for people to find refuge, nonetheless don’t want to have their own way of life significantly altered. This is a perfectly reasonable position.
The predominantly Western view of integrating refugees into society completely ignores this issue, and is the reason there is so much resistance to providing refuge to people fleeing for their lives. Additionally it should be noted that the concept of providing a safe-haven for refugees is generally accepted as being a temporary situation, ending as soon as the place the refugees have fled from becomes safe. However it is absolutely obvious that if the policy is to integrate refugees into society, then the odds of them ever going home become almost zero: because as soon as they have made the new country their ‘home’ (particularly if they are fleeing poorer countries for richer ones) why would they ever want to leave? This leads to the vital point that refugees, regardless of how genuine their original claim, are also migrants, because the reality is they are here to stay.
Secondly, it should be strongly noted that refugees are people crossing from an unsafe country into a safe one. If they then choose, of their own free will, to carry on travelling into other safe countries they are then, by definition, economic migrants (even if, according to the UN definition, they are also refugees). This is because they are making the purely economic decision that the country they are in isn’t good enough for them, and they would rather live somewhere else. For example the people in the camps at Calais, trying to cross the English Channel, aren’t fleeing for their lives from Eritrea, Somalia, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq or any other of those countries. They are all, every single one of them, fleeing France – and as France is not an unsafe country, they are therefore migrants. (This distinction is recognised by the EU ruling that refugees should seek asylum status in the first EU country they arrive in. The EU, riven by indecision and incompetence, seems completely unable to enforce this rule.) It is also worth noting that most of the Syrian migrants in the news at the moment, including the boy who tragically drowned, were coming from Turkey, and Turkey is not an unsafe country either. In fact Turkey has been building huge refugee camps to house Syrians since the start of the civil war, but thousands of people have decided they don’t want to stay in that country, and so have chosen to make the journey through Greece and into Europe. That is their decision and they are also therefore, by definition, migrants.
The EU has struggled to come up with a solution to this crisis, and one of the ideas that keeps getting bandied around is the concept of enforced quotas. This has met with much national resistance, with the UK deciding to opt out completely. Hardly surprising, as once again the politicians have chosen to completely ignore public opinion. Also they have come up with the completely unworkable idea that the number of refugees should be proportional to a country’s existing population. One wonders how their thinking could be so stupid, as that will only serve to increase populations in already overpopulated countries. It also takes no account of those countries already struggling with large-scale immigration (like the UK), and how this will make an already difficult situation very much worse. Far better, should such a policy be introduced, would be to base quotas on population densities (more refugees to lower density countries) and also taking account of current migration levels. For example, of the larger European Countries the most densely populated are Holland (at 497 people/sq km) and the UK (at 410 ppl/sq km). Meanwhile France (121 ppl/sq km) and Poland (122 ppl/sq km) have less than a third as many people for their land area*. Surely it would make more sense to house the bulk of the refugees in those countries? This situation is compounded by the fact that the UK is currently seeing net inward migration of 330,000 people per year (equivalent to a city the size of Nottingham), some of the highest in Europe, while many EU countries, particularly the Eastern ones, are seeing net population outflows. Any resettlement policy which ignores these statistics is idiotic.
The EU is undergoing massive internal problems, largely as the result of the unforeseen consequences of policies that initially seemed very sensible. The free movement of peoples is putting huge strains on the infrastructure, housing and public services of countries seeing net population inflows, and this refugee crisis is in danger of making a bad situation worse. The way to deal with this, surely, is to come up with a policy which takes account of our moral responsibility to care for the victims of war, while at the same time minimises the impact on our own populations. So far the British policy has been largely to provide finance and resources for refugee camps in close proximity to the areas of conflict (we are the second biggest donor, after the US, of such finance, and have to date given £1bn*). That has to be the right policy, and if necessary should undergo massive expansion so that a) Refugees have no need to flee to Europe and b) They are in the area ready to return to and rebuild their country when the conflict is resolved.
This leads on to one final point I wish to make. Anyone watching the news can’t help but have been struck by how much most of the migrants have been paying people traffickers to get them to Europe. It is not cheap (in most cases costing thousands of pounds), and so it is clear that those fleeing Syria are not generally the deprived poor, but the relatively affluent and well-educated middle classes. In other words just the people Syria will need when it starts to rebuild its shattered economy. By allowing these people to stay in Europe we may think we are being humanitarian, but in reality we are stealing the cream of their talent, and making it even less likely that Syria, and other similar countries wrecked by conflict, will ever be able to recover themselves.
Addendum: It is worth saying that this debate frequently refers to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, a document which unfortunately has become obsolete as the world has moved on so much in the 64 years since it was written. For example it gives one definition of a refugee as someone who:
‘… owing to well- founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality…’
Unfortunately, given that even the world’s most advanced countries still experience quite widespread discrimination (against women, homosexuals, the poor for example) it means that almost everyone walking this planet could justify claiming some sort of refugee status if they so choose. That is ridiculous. Additionally the 1951 convention makes widespread use of the term ‘country of nationality’. It is therefore completely unable to deal with the increasingly common situation whereby individuals claiming refugee status deliberately destroy their documents, and then either refuse to divulge their nationality, or else lie about it, in order to increase their chances of being granted asylum.
* Source Migration Watch http://www.migrationwatchuk.org/briefing-paper/356
* Source Department for International Development https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/458717/DFID_Syria_Crisis_Response_Summary__2015.09.04_.pdf