The Refugee Crisis is not about Fairness

Governments have been shamed into addressing the refugee crisis in the Middle East and North Africa. The ugly idea that most Syrians, Eritreans or Afghans fleeing persecution and disaster are anything other than Conventional refugees is dissipating.

At the same time, another unhealthy idea emerges. It is the overweening concern with fairness. Not fairness towards refugees, but fairness among countries able to resettle them. It is a concern with who is doing more, or less, than their proper share as judged by some metric—by population, by GDP, by religious or ethnic makeup, or by geographical location. ‘Unfairness’ of that sort is the last thing we should be worrying about now.

Complaints of unfairness were first heard from front-line countries like Italy and Greece, and then Hungary, where the arbitrary fact of proximity to refugee-producing states was said to give them unfair burdens. The second wave of complaints held it unfair for Europe to shoulder a burden when rich countries in the Middle East—including Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE—do so little. And now, perhaps most odious because it is the most trivial, Britain complains that, since it is not a member of the passport-free Schengen zone, it is unfair to expect it to help coordinate a resettlement scheme with other EU countries.

All of these complaints treat fulfilling one’s moral (and legal) duties as an unwelcome burden that is tolerable only if it is shared according to some comparative measure. The fairness-obsessive cares more about the relative burdens on rich countries than he does about the absolute burdens his inaction imposes on those fleeing persecution and destruction.

The resettlement of refugees is not a public good in the economists’ sense. It is not something like clean air, which requires the cooperation of many if it is to be produced at all, and not something like national security, which is open to all if it is provided for any.

Fairness does matter in addressing problems like that. For example, no one country or small group can halt destruction of the environment. Efforts short of a certain threshold are ineffective and pointless.  If a large group enters an effective treaty, then any other country can benefit without pitching in. To get around this we need to change the situation; but no one would agree on a mechanism to do that unless its terms were fair. For instance, no poor country would agree to accept perpetual poverty just because rich countries had already used up the allowable quota of fossil fuels.

Settling refugees is not like that. Any country can be effective on its own. If Canada had admitted Aylan Kurdi’s father (his aunt was already living in British Columbia), Aylan would be alive today. And in due course, his parents would be working, watching TV, buying food, paying taxes, and so on—in one of the richest and least populous countries in the world.   But wouldn’t that mean Canada had paid an unfair cost? If Canada resettled the Kurdis, the United States could have taken a free-ride on Canada’s generosity. And so it is with respect to all other refugees and all other countries.

But that is a repugnant way of looking at things. First, it is unclear that there are long-run costs to resettling refugees. New residents who are eager, ambitious and grateful to be here are an asset, not a liability. Second, even with respect to short-run adjudication and settlement costs, the relative burdens among countries are unimportant. What matters is the absolute ability of any country to assist. It is relevant that Greek government is in such a parlous state that it cannot cope with the influx. Greece can hardly cope with anything. But it is not relevant that the Hungarian government is in a weaker fiscal position than the German government. It matters whether a country is able to take refugees; it does not matter whether other countries that are equally or more able are doing as much.

Consider an analogy. Any swimmer able to help has a moral duty to save a drowning child. He may not look around the pool to see whether the rescue would be less of a hassle to someone else, and he may not let one child drown on the ground that he already saved one yesterday. If he can effectively help, he must.

Coordination among refugee-accepting countries is often required—but by effectiveness, not fairness. What matters is getting refugees settled, not how the costs of doing so are distributed (except, of course, where that is instrumental to getting more people resettled quickly).

According to the Dublin Regulation, refugees arriving in Europe must claim asylum in the member state in which they first land. The idea is to provide a determinate adjudication of their claims, and to ensure that applicants are not passed around among states. (There is always one ‘first state’.) But the fundamental duty to address an asylum request rests with any state to which it is submitted. If another state is already adjudicating it, that relieves others of the duty. But they cannot otherwise shirk by pointing out, even correctly, that another state would be less burdened by adjudicating, or that, if they wait, someone else will do it instead.

Waiting for a ‘fair’ distribution of the burdens of resettling refugees is immoral. Those able to act must do so, without regard to what others are doing save where coordination is needed—and they must do so now.

10 thoughts on “The Refugee Crisis is not about Fairness

  1. ‘New residents who are eager, ambitious and grateful to be here are an asset, not a liability’. But what if there is unemployment in the country, say 12%? What if, in addition, most of the refugees are no employable in near future since they do not speak the language of the country (and won’t for a couple years) and the jobs for which they could be employed in, there is not big need for them (already fulfilled by many other immigrants?). So you basically are taking a number of future unemployed or not very well employed people whose prospects for living a good life are not in fact particularly good. And what if their own expectations are so high (as many of them seem to have) that they will be bitterly disappointed? So you will, in a year or two end up with, say 100.000 disappointed and isolated who are not integrating in any way and are paid relatively nice social welfare (Europe is not US) comparable to, in fact, many people’s pensions? How are you going to deal with that tension in the society?


  2. Thanks for this piece. While I do agree with your conclusion that EU countries have a moral duty to save these people; a duty that indeed trumps other considerations, I think you should consider few things.
    For a start, you say that “it is unclear that there are long-run costs to resettling refugees. New residents who are eager, ambitious and grateful to be here are an asset, not a liability.” I find this statement curios. I wonder if you can support it with empirical evidence. While it may be true about WWII immigrants, successful immigration stories of this sort are scarce, to say the least.
    Although, the moral duty to save these people outweigh such claims, you cannot ignore the true concerns of these countries. Neighborhoods inhabited with immigrants are typically prone to rising violence and crime which harms the local population that is already disadvantaged to being with. In addition, they do require considerable socio-economic resources.
    That leads to a second point: The “swimmer” example is not a good one, since the complaining countries (mostly Greece and Hungary, I believe,) are not letting these people drown while seeking for fairness. Indeed they don’t offer them a house and a job, but they do receive them and take care of them. They sometimes impose limitations on their freedom to move, but that is understandable as a measure taken to figure out how to deal with thousands of people trying to get to city centers.
    In this context, a demand for a fair distribution of burdens does make sense. You further add that “[w]hat matters is getting refugees settled, not how the costs of doing so are distributed (except, of course, where that is instrumental to getting more people resettled quickly).” But what you add in parentheses is exactly the point! If we understand that these concerns are real and meaningful, then a collective action that would ensure that these countries are not alone in dealing with this crisis would of course lead the a quicker resettles. For a country rationally resist to advance more assistant when it realize that that would encourage more influx that it won’t be able to contain.


  3. It would be informative if you mentioned that the Syrian refugee crisis began with an unprecedented five year drought from 2006 through 2011 that could only be attributed to climate change. This is morally relevant: Europe has contributed to the conditions that led to the humanitarian crisis.


  4. You are right to say that the moral duty of a state to admit refugees does not depend on whether other states are doing their fair share — it’s an absolute duty — but I think it is a mistake to suggest that questions about fairness are irrelevant. After all, the duty to take in refugees is not purely a function of where the refugees arrive and the greatest unfairness in the current situation is to the neighboring states. So, it is important to talk about what fairness requires so long as one does not use that as an excuse for inaction.


  5. Why is it a moral duty of any country to admit them? Is it not, first of all, the duty of each state to take care of its citizens? If it is a moral duty, then why not go help all those poor in Africa itself? Is it simply because, once here, we feel somehow pressured but if they stay away, it is less pressing? What about all the poor, homeless and unemployed in European countries? What about those with very low retirement money? Why should they be obliged in any way to create economic conditions for thousands or even millions of people from Mid-east or Africa? How will they fit into the cultural fabric of Europe? We have seen so many people from Europe, first or second generation immigrants from similar countries go and support ISIS or simply not accept the local culture, traditions, way of life. Are these things to be completely discarded? The rights of women, LGBT people, free speech, what will happen to those? Eastern Europeans, who have had much closer political traditions to Western Europe can barely fit in. How will these people fit in?


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