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The European migration crisis of 2015 has created a huge political challenge for the states that have to respond to the mass migration of people from the Middle East and elsewhere across the continent. But it has also produced a large philosophical challenge to those of us who have been trying to develop principles to apply to the immigration policies of democratic states.

It is tempting to respond to the migration crisis on an emotional basis. Our sympathies go out to the people making arduous journeys across the Mediterranean or up through southern Europe. But as citizens we need to respond rationally as well, and this is where political philosophy can help: by telling us what we owe to people in different predicaments beyond our borders, and where our obligations end.

In late 2014, before the main crisis erupted, I had just finished a draft of my book Strangers in our Midst: The Political Philosophy of Immigration. And for the last year, I have been asking myself whether the framework for thinking about immigration that I developed still applies in these new circumstances.

Defining migrants

The central difficulty is easy to explain. Like many others, I framed my discussion by distinguishing between refugees and economic migrants. Refugees are people who, according to the strict Geneva Convention definition, have been forced to leave their home countries out of a well-founded fear of persecution on grounds such as their race or religion. Or, according to the somewhat broader definition that I favour, they are those who have been forced to leave because there is no way in which their human rights could be protected so long as they remain.

Everyone else outside these two categories should be counted as an economic migrant, understood in a broad sense. They wish to move in search of a better life, or to pursue some personal ambition.

This distinction matters because in the case of economic migrants what the state is doing when it admits them is best understood in terms of mutual advantage: the migrants gains by moving, and the people of the receiving state gain by having them in their midst. Seeing it this way helps us to think both about the numbers of immigrants who should be admitted (too many in too short a time and problems are likely to appear) and about the criteria that should be used to select them.

It is a quite different matter in the case of refugees. Here the state is on a rescue mission to accommodate desperate people when it hears their claim for asylum. Because taking them in may involve more costs than benefits, states are permitted to reallocate refugees to safe third countries – countries where their human rights will be securely protected. They are also permitted to offer resettlement to people already living in refugee camps in other countries, who can be chosen on grounds of their suitability.

In other words, states have an obligation to respond to the claims of refugees, but because of the possible costs involved, they have discretion as to how they meet that obligation.

Europe’s dilemma

But the events that have created the European migration crisis put this distinction between refugees and economic migrants into question. Many of those who have arrived unannounced by land or sea have been escaping conditions of civil war or of political instability in which terrorist groups can operate freely. Others are compelled to leave overcrowded refugee camps where living conditions and opportunities are too sparse to fulfil their human rights. Either way, in most cases they are victims of state failure rather than state persecution.

When they attempt to cross a national border, are they then to be counted as refugees on the wider definition that I favour?

The problem is that my definition includes a counterfactual element: it asks whether the person in question could be adequately protected while remaining in her present country of residence. In the case of someone currently staying in an underfunded refugee camp, for example, the answer to this question is very likely to be a yes. What is primarily required to secure the human rights of the people staying there is for richer members of the international community to raise the level of support that they provide. But for the people who are actually living in the camp, the relevant question is whether the resources they need to lead decent lives (including opportunities for education and productive work) will in fact be provided so long as they remain where they are. They do not want to wait hopefully for ten or twenty years. So they have very strong reasons for moving, but since they are already located in places where their basic rights either are or could be secured, they do not qualify as refugees from the perspective of the states they might move to.

In an influential book, my Oxford colleague Alexander Betts has proposed that we should introduce the concept of ‘survival migration’ to cover cases like this. Survival migrants, he says, are ‘persons who are outside their country of origin because of an existential threat for which they have no access to a domestic remedy or resolution’. What does this mean? It cannot plausibly mean ‘no access at this very moment’. Consider an earthquake survivor: she may need both food and shelter, and it may be some days before these are provided through an international relief effort. Meanwhile, she has no access to a domestic remedy because the local authorities are overstretched.

Presumably, though, it would not be in the spirit of Betts’ definition to count this person as a survival migrant if she decided to cross a frontier. What this example shows is that the concept relies on a tacit understanding that conditions in the migrant’s country of origin are ‘unfixable’, looking some distance ahead into the future. As such, it inevitably suffers from a considerable degree of indeterminacy. If we say, for example, that people leaving Iraq or Syria will count as survival migrants, we must be making an assumption about what is going to happen in those countries in the future; we are ruling out the possibility of conflict ceasing and the economy recovering in a few years’ time.

I do not treat this problem as an objection to the idea of survival migration itself. What it reveals, however, is that if the concept is not to be stretched so that it covers everyone who exits a poor country in search of a better life, the people it applies to will also count as refugees on my definition. They will be people whose rights cannot be secured so long as they remain in their countries of origin.

This conceptual point matters, because it affects how we see the flood of people crossing the sea and attempting to make their way across land borders to the richer European states. Their situation inevitably makes them look like an undifferentiated mass, desperate people in need of help. But in fact this tide of people is what immigration experts call a ‘mixed flow’. It contains people who count as refugees under the narrow Geneva Convention definition of the term, people who are escaping the threat of persecution. It will also include survival migrants coming directly from places that are unfixable in the medium term, and who therefore should be counted as refugees on the wider definition that I favour. And finally, there will be others who are moving in search of a decent life, but who do not qualify as refugees on either count − for example those who have decided to quit refugee camps where they were protected but opportunities to work were inadequate.

These distinctions matter for receiving governments having to decide whom to admit. With limited resources, they have to be able to set priorities between different applicants, decide whether to admit people temporarily or on a more permanent basis and so forth. Under normal circumstances this would involve a somewhat lengthy process of investigating the background circumstances of each new arrival. The migration crisis of 2015 is in part a crisis because the numbers arriving have overwhelmed the systems that European states, particularly those bordering the Mediterranean, have put in place to regulate admissions.

There is a further reason why the receiving states ought to look closely at who is coming in. It has been a noticeable (though predictable) feature of the migrant flows into Europe in the recent period that they are disproportionately composed of young men, many of them already having, or seeking, university education. This might bode well for their integration into Germany, Sweden and the other European societies willing to accept them in substantial numbers, but it also means that the societies they are leaving are being deprived of the very people who are most able to contribute to their rebuilding. In these circumstances, the receiving societies cannot just consider their own needs for skilled labour.

Paul Collier has recently argued that the central problem with the camps that have taken in refugees from Syria is that they fail to provide work opportunities for the inhabitants. His recommendation is that European states should use part of their support money to create industrial areas near to the camps so that businesses and jobs can be created that would eventually return to Syria itself once the civil war ends. Such initiatives, then, would serve a dual purpose: they would reduce the incentive for people to undertake dangerous journeys in the hope of reaching Europe, and they would also contribute to the economic regeneration of war-torn societies. If a large-scale programme of this kind were adopted, it would reduce the overall numbers trying to enter Europe, and allow the immigration services a much better chance of identifying and welcoming those who are indeed refugees.

If inward mass migration by those who are not refugees is something to be discouraged, what steps can European states legitimately take to deter migrants from entering the borders of the EU? The crisis has provoked strong disagreement both over search-and-rescue missions that aim to recover people from unseaworthy boats and deliver them to destinations in Europe, and over whether states should allow unauthorised migrants coming from the south to cross their borders and move on to countries further north. Neither issue is straightforward. In the case of the boat people, all sides recognize that any ship that encounters a boat full of migrants in imminent danger of drowning has at least a humanitarian duty to take them on board and escort them to dry land.

On the other hand, it seems likely that the prospect of being rescued in this way provides an incentive to migrants to embark on journeys that are visibly unsafe, and that where states have broken the link between rescue and access to their territory – as the Australian government has done by adopting a policy whereby migrant boats are either towed back to their point of embarkation, or else their occupants are assessed in offshore detention centres, with those qualifying for refugee status placed in third countries – the stream of boats rapidly dries up, and with it the loss of life. For those who make it to Europe, the main issue is whether they should be allowed to move freely within the continent. Most states now regard such freedom of movement as one of the fundamental principles of the European Union. Yet an adequate response to the current crisis appears to require these states to agree to a burden-sharing scheme for allocating refugees, and a burden-sharing scheme is unlikely to work if refugees, once admitted, are free to move to whichever country they most prefer.



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