Eu migrant crisis, Pt. II: Who do we have to protect?

Migrants to Kos, Greece. || Alexander Zemlianichenko, AP.

Migrants to Kos, Greece. || Alexander Zemlianichenko, AP.

In the first article of this three-part series, four main concerns about migration were cited. The following article will attempt to address the first.

Which asylum seekers do we have the responsibility to protect, if any?

The first thing to clear up, when we talk about refugees, is whether providing asylum is a matter of charity, or of justice. This is an important distinction to make. If asylum is charity, refugees can only plead for it. If it is justice, on the other hand, they have the right to demand it.

Delving into the philosophical discourse behind this distinction will, unfortunately, require a much larger word count than allotted to IONA Exchange articles. But what’s important about this idea is that, as of February 2018, 146 countries across the world— including Canada, the US, and all 28 EU member states— have agreed that anyone meeting the definition of a refugee is entitled to a legally-binding set of rights outlined in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. One of these rights is asylum. This means that these countries have chosen their side of the debate; they acknowledge that granting asylum is not just a moral obligation, but a legal one. Therefore, a true refugee has the right to demand asylum from any country who ratified this convention.

But what’s a true refugee? Since 1967, the definition has run as follows: someone who, “owing to wellfounded 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 and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

This covers pretty well anyone fleeing Islamic State, bombing by government forces (OHCHR), or detention by the Assad regime. These migrants clearly fall within the bounds of the convention, and are owed, at minimum, asylum and the accompanying fulfillment of other human rights, until it is safe for them to return to their country of origin. If, however, the conflict outlasts a reasonable time span, they are also owed some form of surety about the future, which often materializes as citizenship.

But Syrian refugees are not the only migrants crossing the Mediterranean, and for the most part, they’re not the ones people are angry about. “Of course I respect the cruelty of civil war in Syria, Iraq, and so on,” said Milos Zerman, president of the Czech Republic. “But we do not speak about those people, we speak about economic migrants. [...] I am for deportation of all economic migrants.”

It’s true that economic migrants don’t fit within the aforementioned definition of a refugee. But what’s the difference between someone fleeing death by missile, or death by starvation? Don’t we owe the same rights to migrants who are trying escape poverty?

To answer this question, we need to look at the basis for granting asylum. It starts with an idea called the “responsibility to protect,” wherein states have an obligation to protect their citizens from harm. However, when a state is unable or unwilling to do this, the responsibility then falls on the international community, which must come alongside such states and assist in protecting their citizens.

In cases like the Syrian conflict, the clearest way to assist the state in providing protection is to remove civilians from the theatre of war; asylum needs to be granted. However, when we deal with issues like poverty, the problem becomes more complex. States are often working quite hard to protect their citizens from starvation or disease, in which case removing citizens from their care would be a violation, rather than a fulfillment, of the responsibility to protect. Even in cases of corrupt and inefficient governments, shifting entire populations across continents is both impractical and unnecessary. The best solution is to partner with the state to improve its protective capabilities and accountability to the people; as mandated by the responsibility to protect, the international community must partner with the state to enact political reform, whilst simultaneously providing a reasonable amount of in-country aid, through the local state. What “reasonable” means, and what form this aid should take, is a matter for development economists to discuss.

Now that we’ve established who has a right to asylum, the real trouble begins: asylum where? “International community” is a vague concept, and even when we narrow it down to those countries who ratified the UN Convention, it seems evident that Australia and Haiti shouldn’t be taking equivalent numbers of refugees. Burden-sharing, as it is called, is the most politically-heated point on the refugee agenda, and currently, there are two main methods of approaching a solution.

Responsibility by capability is by far the more popular choice. Depending on a number of criteria—GDP per capita, land mass, pre-existing refugee integration programs, etc.— whose weights can be adjusted, countries should take in the number of refugees proportional to their capability to care for and integrate those refugees.

There’s also the more controversial responsibility by culpability. This viewpoint advocates that the majority of the burden be shouldered by those states who can causally be determined responsible for the crisis. Of course, this is a nearly impossible task. Who can state with certainty that the 2003 invasion of Iraq caused the Syrian civil war? And yet it is a widely-supported view that actions by the US and its allies destabilised the MENA region, created a power vacuum, and perhaps didn’t cause, but at least contributed to the present crisis. In any case, this method of divvying responsibility is quite tricky and has a high likelihood of causing political brannigans.

Nonetheless, either one of these two approaches to burden-sharing is defensible; the question reduces down to the international norm of “fairness” and can be haggled out between politicians. The only policy that clearly cannot function as a method of burden-sharing is confining EU migrants to the country of their first point of entry. No notion of fairness can defend indefinitely housing all migrants in Greece (40.8% youth unemployment), Italy (1.32 debt-to-GDP ratio), or Spain (net emigration) just because they happen to have beaches. And yet, this is the burden-sharing method that many politicians (for example, Viktor Orban) are advocating when they refuse to accept refugees.

But much of this anxiety about burden-sharing is really motivated by a larger economic question: how much will it cost? Part III of this series, published 16 March, will answer accordingly.