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.