The Refugee Crisis From a Social Choice Perspective

Over the last few months, we’ve been seeing an increase in media coverage of the plight of refugees and migrants trying to make the journey to Western Europe. Here’s a graph from Google Trends:

refugees google trends

It started with events in Calais and then shifted eastwards to Hungary, Greece and other countries around the Mediterranean. Somehow, the focus is now more on refugees than on migrants, perhaps because there are now more refugees coming across from countries such as Syria. Some argue that the reason for the recent spike in media coverage are indeed the larger than ever numbers of people travelling to Europe, but I’m not sure this is correct or that it’s the main reason even if it is correct. Let’s admit that refugees are photogenic, especially when they’re in trouble, and hence easy material for journalists. Increased media coverage could be partially the result of tragic anecdotes captured on film.

Whatever the reasons for the levels of media coverage, I think it’s interesting to try to assess the impact this coverage will have on reality, as opposed to the impact of reality on the coverage.

We can look at this from both the supply side and the demand side. Let me start with the latter. An increase in the numbers of stories about refugees and migrants in Western media will most likely motivate more people to try and make the journey (foster the “demand” for migration). Although a lot of coverage focuses on the risks faced by individuals or families – people drowning in the Mediterranean or suffocating in the backs of trucks – potential migrants or refugees are well aware of these risks and increased media coverage of deaths or other negative effects of migration attempts will not change their risk assessment. (It would be different if destination countries were actively trying to increase the risks, by building walls or stopping boats, but this doesn’t seem to be happening, yet. Or at least not more than before. The so-called wall in Hungary, however shameful, is still very leaky). Compared to the risks of staying where they are, potential migrants or refugees make a rational calculation to leave, and they’re probably correct in most cases. They’re even more likely to be correct when they come from Syria and other war-torn countries.

Increased media coverage also shows that lots of people do make it some distance to their destination, and this will further push other potential migrants’ calculations towards a decision to make the journey. In addition: media coverage doesn’t typically include success stories of people making it all the way and having a good life in their new country. Potential travellers know this, and therefore include this in their risk assessment. They know that media coverage is skewed towards bad news and only tends to show journeys that go wrong and to picture people having trouble along the way or facing hostility at their destination. Migrants arriving safely, being welcomed and having a successful new life just don’t make the news, but they exist. We all know this, but we don’t know how common they are. Still, they exist, and knowledge of this factors into the risk calculations of potential migrants.

How about the “supply side”? How will countries that can potentially offer more or less supply of migration opportunities react to the recent media coverage? First of all, we’re now seeing a strong self-shaming effect, especially after events such as the drowning of Aylan. This mitigates pre-existing xenophobia and forces western European governments to allow somewhat larger numbers of arrivals. This is already happening, albeit on a largely symbolic scale. So both the demand and supply sides will go up, at least in the short term.

Feelings of shame tend not to last, however, and tragic images of dead toddlers on beaches fade from memory much faster than the sight of even a relatively small number of new arrivals squatting in squalor in Western parks and train stations. Xenophobic reactions to the new arrivals and the often imaginary burdens these people place on “our” social security systems, housing markets, job markets etc. will probably make a comeback after a few weeks of face-to-face confrontation with third world poverty. As a result, we’re likely to see a rebranding of refugees as “mere” migrants. Migrants in turn will be called “fortune seekers” and other rather more despicable labels.

FT_Econ_Burden_fw_Pre-crisis levels of toleration of migrants were already low in many European countries, and one can imagine that so-called “swarms” of new arrivals can make things worse very quickly. This in turn can have an effect on the demand side as people considering a potential journey decide to do it sooner rather than later in order to beat the clock and travel before the walls go up. These possible new waves of concentrated arrivals in Western countries will further encourage xenophobia. Etcetera etcetera, as one is tempted to say.

If you’re interested, I’ve got more and older posts on migration, refugees and citizenship right here.

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One thought on “The Refugee Crisis From a Social Choice Perspective

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