Type to search


Refugees: Changing a Mindset


Country World Rank by Number of Refugees Number of Refugees Refugees per 1,000 Persons
Turkey 1 2,869,379 36
Jordan 2 2,860,669 303
West Bank and Gaza 3 2,158,274 474
Lebanon 4 1,476,618 246
Germany 9 669,408 8
United States 21 272,898 1
Italy 32 147,302 2
United Kingdom 33 118,913 2
Australia 50 42,107 2
Spain 66 12,943 0.3

Refugee Data Source: World Bank (2016). Population Data Source: World Bank (2016)

In Lebanon (GDP per capita of $8,524), one in six people is a refugee, but America ($59,532), and Italy ($31,953), and Britain ($39,720), and Australia ($53,800), and Spain ($32,405), cannot take in more refugees, because ah! Our money! Our culture!

Much of the debate around refugees and migration centers on how viable it is for Western countries to allow foreign nationals into their countries and maintain a level of well-being—and cultural norms—while maintaining not too different from the status quo. For example, there is widespread economic debate about the effects of migration on the income and employment of nationals.

Politically, this debate is relevant: it is easier to sell pro-migration policies when they are beneficial to those you are selling them to. Yet, normatively, it is less clear whether these debates matter. As long as local populations are not harmed to an order of magnitude greater than the most anti-immigration economist predicts, do harms to locals really matter? If accepting migrants is simply the right thing to do, then how much migration benefits or harms local populations is tangential to the question of how many migrants developed countries should accept. Developed countries have a moral duty to accept more refugees even if doing so harms those countries.

The Moral Burden of Refusing to Accept Refugees

Consider the following analogy. In the 20th century, urban discrimination affected the racial makeup of neighborhoods across America. Explicitly racist policies and Supreme Court decisions created much of this discrimination, such as Atlanta’s separation of residential areas into three categories, “white, colored and undetermined”, and Corrigan v Buckley (1926) in which the Supreme Court upheld quotas on home sales to black and Jewish Americans. That these policies are wrong is obvious. People were denied access to land on the basis of their identity. This seems indefensible. But how are migration restrictions—laws which systematically stop people from escaping poverty or war on the basis of an arbitrary, unchosen factor (nationality)—any different?

Some may argue that a difference exists on the basis of probable harm. Accepting people from different races and ethnicities into a neighborhood does not create a clear harm, but allowing waves of immigrants to undercut market wages and replace existing jobs clearly creates harms to the people in those countries. If they are refugees who will live apart from societies, or if they will require government support programs, then they represent a clear drain on public funds. Further, there is a greater difference between people of different races within a country and people of different nationalities. Sure, race and nationality may be equally arbitrary, but it just so happens that nationality has a greater influence on personal culture than race, and having quantities of people with radically different cultures interacting with each others can create social tensions that make life worse for locals.

The main premises of the argument are doubtful—for instance, many studies claim that immigration is beneficial to the country accepting immigrants—but that is not the point. The point is: the soundness of the premises (whether migration benefits local economies and whether it creates cultural shocks) does not matter. All the premises could be true and it would make no difference to the question of whether we should accept migrants.

Extending the urban discrimination analogy should make the point clear. While many of the policies that caused housing discrimination were explicitly racist, small individual actions contributed to housing segregation as well. These individual actions ranged from malicious, explicit racism to simple self-interest. Consider a property owner who does not want to sell a house to a black person because they are racist. This is obviously wrong. Now consider a property developer who owns multiple houses in a neighborhood and knows that selling houses to black people would depreciate the value of their other properties because other people are racist. Normatively, does the motivating factor of his decision make any difference to whether it is acceptable? It does not appear so. If a black person cannot buy a home because a seller is self-interested, as opposed to inherently racist, this seems to make no normative difference. The outcome is the same: discrimination. And discrimination—certainly this kind of discrimination—is wrong. That a seller would not sell a home to a black person is wrong regardless of their reason for doing so.

The parallel to immigration is simple. Hard working citizens in developed countries may support immigration restrictions because they want to protect themselves. Their interests may be perfectly reasonable: they want a safe job, they fear for the values they cherish. Yet to prioritize these interests above the interests of people escaping war zones is immoral. The interests of locals matter, but they do not justify systemic discrimination. This is especially true given the circumstances restrictions force asylum-seekers into. Refugees seeking shelter in Italy who are returned to the Mediterranean are more likely to drown at sea. When legal asylum-seekers are likely to face rejection, more of them seek the assistance of illegal human smugglers who may engage in human trafficking. When richer states do not accept them, more refugees are left in developing countries where they are generally more susceptible to human rights violations, as exemplified by the horrific cases of organ harvesting in Egypt. And many asylum-seekers who do not legally qualify as refugees are forced to return to violence-ridden homes. It is unforgivable for the US to force Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Salvadorans to return to three of the countries with the highest murder rates in the world. Many of the people seeking asylum are specifically being targeted by gangs or crony law enforcement officers for fighting back against corruption and organized crime—are they not good enough for the land of the free?

The Politics and Inequalities of Asylum Claims

Evidently, Trump, Conte, and other far-right politicians are not exactly supporting refugees. Yet the duty to do better extends far beyond the far right. The point is that support for more “moderate” immigration restrictions than Hungary’s “Stop Soros Law” and other unhinged right-wing policies is also wrong. Even Germany’s comparatively generous hosting of about one million refugees in 2017 is not enough (it is still less than much poorer countries such as Turkey and Uganda), though of course other European countries should share the brunt.

Rich countries’ hypocrisy is particularly troubling. Poor, conflict-prone countries accept more refugees than rich stable ones. Meanwhile, developed countries complain that they cannot take in any more. Developing countries hold 84% of the world’s refugees. When looking at refugees per capita, only one developed country, Sweden, makes the top 10.

Of course, much of the disparity in refugee acceptance is due to the geographical proximity to conflict areas and a decreased capacity to patrol borders. However, geography is not the only factor: rich countries already face more refugees than they are willing to take. This means that, when refugees overcome the barriers of geography, they are still rejected. Hence the Calais Jungle. Hence Italy forcing migrants on shabby crafts to return to the treacherous twists and turns of the Mediterranean.

More importantly, rich-world restrictions on refugee acceptance increase refugee populations in poor countries. If rejected at the border of a wealthy states, refugees are more likely to return to a developing country that is not the warzone they escaped. Further, if it is generally hard to enter a country, they are less likely to try to enter in the first place, so, for instance Syrians in Turkey and Afghans in Lebanon are less likely to try to enter EU states. Thus, not only do developed countries fail refugees, they also shift a substantial economic burden on the countries least equipped to shoulder it. If accepting refugees is bad for Spaniards, then it is also bad for Jordanians. Since Jordanians are worse off than Spaniards, why should they bear the burden? (If the World Bank is to be trusted, Jordan had 221 times more refugees than Spain in 2016).

That developing countries take in so many refugees shows that openness to refugees and functioning states are compatible. Turkey faces a choppy sociopolitical outlook, but to claim its large refugee population—about 3.5 million—is the source of its malaise is absurd. Blame corruption and authoritarianism, not Syrians seeking shelter from war.

It is also untrue that refugees in developing countries live solely in foreign-funded UN camps separated from society at large. In Peru and Colombia, the wave of Venezuelan migrants escaping Maduro’s tyranny (about one million total) have largely found a home in major cities. Waiters, taxi drivers, and cashiers in Lima are increasingly Venezuelan. Colombia has granted Venezuelan refugees special work permits. In Turkey, over 95% of Syrians live in urban centers. While far from perfect, Istanbul is showing some signs of leadership in urban refugee integration. Various municipalities in Istanbul run free language classes, social support programs, and give Syrians more flexibility when opening businesses. The point is this: accepting many refugees is difficult, but if Colombia and Turkey can do it, so can Canada and France.

Reasonable self-interest is no excuse for discrimination. Rich countries are able to take in many more refugees than they do. In refusing to do so, they cause death and suffering and force poorer countries to take on larger burdens. Borders are arbitrary. They should not arbitrate the lives of 25 million refugees.