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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Migration and Human Rights (52): Remote Border Controls, Or How to Deal With Poor People On the Move

Many of the poorest people in the world are determined to seek a better life in wealthy countries. The governments and large swats of the populations of those countries react with increasing despair to this stubborn fact, even though the numbers of immigrants aren’t really much higher than they used to be. It’s also not the case that current immigrants create more problems than their predecessors. (On the contrary, welfare consumption, crime rates etc. are lower among immigrants than among natives, and there’s a lot of evidence that natives benefit from immigration).

But then what is causing this despair? I guess it’s got something to do with the perceived failure of Western governments to deal with the “immigration problem”. Whether or not it’s true that there are too many immigrants causing too many problems, many Westerners think it’s true and are dismayed by their governments’ reaction to this supposed fact: people are upset with ineffective policing of the borders (to the extent that some of them have set up private militias to deal with illegal border crossings); they’re upset with the failure of government agencies to send back “illegals” present on the territory; they want but often don’t get harsher immigration laws; they sometimes get but don’t want amnesty etc.

These governments, being democratic, feel the need to respond to popular discontent – even though the actual popularity of the discontent can be questioned. How do they respond? The first thing they do is step up their existing efforts: tightened border security (including walls if necessary), less generous visa and asylum rules etc. Unsurprisingly, this is often unsuccessful if success is defined as a large reduction in the number of illegal – and sometimes also legal – immigrants. Poor people are very determined folks and often find a way around restrictions.

Hence, there’s now a second line of response. Since a few decades now, Western governments have been trying to “externalize” or “extraterritorialize” their immigration restrictions. They also call this policy, somewhat euphemistically, “upstream” or “remote” border control. Western governments have de facto extended their borders. A first step in this second line of response has been the policy of intercepting people on the high sea, outside of the territorial jurisdiction of the states that are the supposed destinations of the people who are intercepted. For example, the US has used force against Haitian refugees outside its territorial waters. And of course this is now the common European practice in the Mediterranean Sea.

The US, Europe but also Australia are moving their border enforcement efforts beyond their national borders into the high sea. But that’s only a first step in the extraterritorialization of immigration control. Immigration restrictions are now being implemented in the territories of countries wherefrom migrants try to reach the West.The policy is to have agreements with the countries of origin and important transit countries. These countries agree to control people departing from or transiting through their territories.

The word “control” can mean different things here: for example police patrols carried out in cooperation with the authorities of Western countries; no-go buffer-zones if the origin or transit countries share a border with the destination countries; destination countries funding detention facilities abroad etc. Cooperation agreements like these aren’t always mutually voluntary. In some cases, Western countries make development funding, visa-allotment and other goodies conditional upon acceptance of said agreements.

Here’s a visual representation of the increasing importance of remote border controls.

This is the outsourcing of immigration control, and I’m sure we’ve only seen the beginning of it. In truly Orwellian style, Western governments use the supposed wellbeing of (potential) migrants as a justification of remote border controls. Better to stop them before they depart for the West than to allow them to put themselves at risk during an often dangerous journey. Better also to stop them than to send them back on the same dangerous journey. As if it’s not the immigration restrictions that make the journey dangerous and that force a good deal of successful immigrants to make the same journey back.

If you believe that immigration restrictions are morally acceptable, then I guess remote borders controls are OK. This type of immigration restriction isn’t necessarily more harmful to potential migrant than more traditional restrictions at the border or in the territory of destination countries. It can indeed be less harmful, sparing a lot of people a lot of trouble and risk. But my point is of course that immigration restrictions are not morally acceptable. If I’m correct, then more restrictions mean more immorality. Why do I think immigration restrictions are not morally acceptable? Because I believe there are good reasons based on human rights to allow people to move across borders, even people who want to move for purely “economic” reasons (meaning that they want to move in order to escape starvation and crippling poverty). I’ve set out these reasons here and won’t repeat them now.

I do realize that I’m occupying a minority position here. Much less controversial is the right of refugees and asylum seekers to move across borders. The Refugee Convention is very clear about the rights of people migrating in order to escape persecution. One of these rights is non-refoulement. This is a principle of international law that forbids the rendering of a victim of persecution to his or her persecutor.

Article 33 of the Convention states:

No Contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

Even if you think it’s OK to have remote border controls for economic migrants, the same controls will unavoidably trap some refugees in the countries that want to kill or imprison them. It’s only abroad that they can get a fair hearing of their asylum claims, but this is made impossible by remote border controls. So let’s get rid of it, and not only for the sake of refugees.

More posts in this series here.

Migration and Human Rights (50): Rebooting Nationalism

Like young children have to learn what dreams are so as not to be afraid of them, we will have to unlearn what the nation is so as not to be infatuated by it. Pride in a nation is not what the nation is. Be proud of yourself and your children because being proud of something without the ability to take credit for it is plagiarism. Nationalists are serial plagiarists. They appropriate the good of their nation (while the bad in their nation often appropriates them).

Nationalists defend this plagiarism by way of the notion of national identity. They assume that certain cherished traditions of the group and certain accomplishments of members of it derive at least in part from a national identity shared by all. This common identity is believed to cause the good in the nation, and because it is shared by all members it allows all to claim a share in the good. That is what national pride is. You claim to be proud of being Flemish because of all those great Flemish painters. But unless you remove in some way the difference between you as a person and the Flemish painters as persons – and you attempt to remove that difference by positing a common identity, a national identity – your pride would be nothing more than appropriation of someone else’s greatness.

The notion of national identity is what lies behind a lot of animosity towards foreigners. Arguments against immigration for example are fundamentally about identity, even when they appear to be about more mundane matters. Talk about protecting jobs and social security are not what they seem to be. We are a nation separate from others, and we should protect our identity. That means resisting foreign influence in all matters. We are masters of our realm, and we don’t want people coming here because if they do they will start to influence our being, our identity. That’s what separates tourists from immigrants. The former are harmless, but the latter, because they work here or enjoy our social benefits, will want to stay. And if they stay, they will change us. Talk about labor shortage or unaffordability of social security is just a front for identity politics. This is obvious from the fact that data on the economic effects of immigration has never supported the economic arguments against immigration, and yet these arguments continue to be expressed. Something deeper must be at stake.

We should instead view a nation as a cooperative arrangement for mutual benefit, both internally and against legitimate foreign threats. It has a number of traditions that are valuable because, and only because they improve the mutual cooperation. Forget about national identity. It’s not even clear that there is a thing called individual identity. You want to be proud of something? Do something noteworthy. You want to belong? A mutually beneficial cooperative arrangement is a nice thing to belong to. And if you have to, be proud of that arrangement to the extent that you contribute.

So, by all means, make your borders. A cooperative needs a delineation. You need to identify the cooperators and give them a cooperative say on the matters of the whole (a democracy works best in small, separate groups). But don’t exclude people for imaginary reasons or in the absence of real threats to the cooperative. There’s no national identity that immigrants can come to destroy. Do they disrupt your mutually beneficial cooperative arrangement? Are they criminals for example? Go ahead and exclude them (incarceration may, however, be a sufficient form of exclusion). And keep your eyes open to the many ways in which immigrants enhance the mutually beneficial cooperative arrangement. For example, they create jobs, they allow natives to move up the job ladder, they pay tax money (often more than they take), they have interesting food etc.

Don’t remove your borders, because you may face real threats. But open them, because opening them will in all likelihood benefit your cooperative. And even if there’s no effect, you must do it to respect the rights of the newcomers. Rights can only be limited when that is necessary for the rights of others. And it’s normally very hard to argue that limiting the rights of immigrants is necessary in order to protect the rights of natives. Hence you often see a heavy thumb on the scales: the rights of both parties are not given equal weight when the rights of immigrants are on one side of the equation.

How should this balancing work in general? When the rights of two parties are in conflict with each other, respecting the rights of one party usually means limiting the rights of the other party. Think of the journalist claiming his speech rights in order to violate the right to privacy of a politician. Someone – often a judge but we can all make the call – has to decide which party’s rights should give way. The normal criterion is the damage done to the rights of either party. In my example, unless the private fact that the journalist wants to publish is very important for the work of the politician, the latter’s right to privacy should prevail over the speech rights of the journalist who undoubtedly has many more important stories he can cover without harming the rights of others.

The same is true with immigrants versus natives. Both have rights, and immigration can perhaps, in some circumstances, cause violations of the rights of natives. However, it normally doesn’t. Which means that the right to movement of the immigrants should prevail. It’s only when the natives have a very strong case showing massive rights violations on their part caused by immigration that immigration can be stopped or limited. Don’t forget that on the immigrant side of the equation there’s not only the right to free movement but also rights such freedom of association, the right not to suffer poverty etc. You need a lot to outweigh those rights, and a lot is typically not available. In most cases there’s not even a bit.

More on nationalism here. More posts in this series here.

Migration and Human Rights (49): Rights and Non-Rights Based Reasons to Favor Open Borders

It’s fairly easy to make a rights-based case for open borders – or, more realistically, for reduced immigration restrictions: human beings have

All of these rights depend, in some cases, on the possibility to migrate. And there’s no reason to believe that the actionability of these rights stops at the border (maybe the legal actionability stops there, but not the moral one).

Sure, you can have rights-based reasons to limit immigration, but those are relatively weak. People have a right to private property and to exclude others from their property, but it’s a stretch to argue that a nation of people has a “property” right to a territory. It’s also true that people have a right to democratic self-government, but again this is not a good reason to limit immigration (you can allow immigration and refuse to grant immigrants the right to vote, although you probably shouldn’t). What about the right to cultural identity? Relax. A culture that can’t survive the presence of neighbors is probably not worth saving.

The best right-based reason to limit immigration is perhaps freedom of association: although this right can be used to argue in favor of immigration – when a native and an immigrant decide to associate in, for example, a business relationship, then who are we to stop them? – it can also be interpreted as a right to exclude. A right to associate includes the right not to associate with certain people. One can make the case that allowing people to live in a country is a form of association that people who already live there can accept or refuse. However, is a nation really an association? Anti-patriots and cosmopolitans exist, and yet they are not excluded from the nation. Hence, it’s doubtful whether a nation is an association in the relevant sense. If it’s not, then it doesn’t have a right to exclude, at least not a right to exclude that is similar or equal to the right of proper associations.

So, we do have robust rights-based reasons in favor of open borders, but these aren’t the only reasons. Here’s a list of some types of people who normally don’t use rights as the basis for their thinking but who nevertheless have good reasons to favor open borders (or at least reduced immigration restrictions):

  • Hayekians: In most current immigration systems, governments exclude “bad” immigrants and admit “good” ones. E.g. they exclude criminals, terrorists and economic refugees but try to attract high skilled geniuses. However, Hayekians should doubt that governments have the knowhow that is necessary to do this. Better to remove immigration regulations and leave it to the market – i.e. immigrants and their employers – to sort this out. The government should then focus on keeping out the criminals and the terrorist.
  • Christians/Jews/Muslims: The Abrahamic religions remember the Exodus. If some children of God suffer an injustice for the simple reason of living somewhere rather than somewhere else (a present-day example of such an injustice would be the place premium) then the adherents of one of the Abrahamic religions have a moral obligation to rectify this. Charity can be one option, but open borders seem to be a much more effective remedy.
  • Economists: All those who favor GDP growth should favor open borders which could lead to a one-time boost in world GDP by an estimated 50 to 150%.
  • Law-and-order people: The average immigrant is less likely to commit crime than the average native-born person.
  • Socialists/Social-democrats: Left-leaning folks are primarily concerned with the poorest social classes. Hence, they also should favor immigration because there’s evidence that low-skilled native workers may be able to move up the job ladder when low-skilled immigrants arrive (some low-skilled natives will lose the wage competition but can then be compensated by the welfare state to which a lot of migrants contribute through the taxes that they pay).
  • Etc.

More posts in this series are here.

Migration and Human Rights (48): The Arguments Against Immigration, and How They Are Mistaken

I’m going to try to list the most common arguments against immigration, and show how they are devoid of any basis in facts. Since I’m talking facts, I’ll include some handy references to scientific evidence debunking the arguments. (The references will sometimes be found in older blogposts, so you may have to click through a few times. If you feel that I’m shamelessly overlooking some seminal papers, please tell me in comments).

1. The labor cost argument

Claim:

Immigrants are willing to work for low wages, especially the illegal ones. The result is unfair wage competition with natives who will see their wages drop as a result, or who may even be priced out of the labor market altogether. The welfare of native workers requires that we limit immigration.

Facts:

Immigration actually increases native wages because it allows native workers to move up the pay scale, for example as supervisors of the new immigrant workers. Low skilled immigrants also make it possible for natives to spend less time on non-paid, low-skilled activities that they can outsource. As a result, the latter can spend more time on paid activities, which increases their income. The wage competition claim can also be refuted by pointing to the fact that native workers and immigrants tend to take different occupations.

Not only is there a positive wage effect of immigration (with perhaps a small exception for native high school drop outs), but immigration also creates or saves jobs. The easier it is to find cheap immigrant labor at home the less likely that production will relocate offshore. More here.

2. The social safety net argument

Claim:

Immigrants come over just to cash in on unemployment and other benefits, since the income of even the relatively rich people in many poor countries pales in comparison to the welfare benefits in rich countries. This is unsustainable, since welfare benefits have to be financed, and working native populations often have a hard time producing enough tax revenue in order to support native welfare beneficiaries. Allowing immigrants to come but then excluding them from welfare benefits seems harsh and unjust. Hence it’s better not to allow them to come in the first place.

Facts:

Immigrants use welfare at lower rates than natives. The labor force participation rate for illegal immigrants in the US is higher than that of the native-born. In the UK, immigrants represent about 13% of all workers, but only 7% percent of unemployment benefits.

3. The “importing poverty” argument

Claim:

Immigrants are less well off than natives. That’s precisely why they want to migrate. Allowing them in reduces the average wealth of the destination country.

Facts:

Many immigrants are indeed less well off than the native born, even after they’ve immigrated, because they come from poorer countries and because they’re often less skilled than the native born. Hence, an increase in immigration may push up the national poverty rate. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, since the same immigration flow will probably push down the global poverty rate: migrants usually improve their lot by migrating – they probably wouldn’t migrate if that were not the case.

4. The crime argument

Claim:

Immigrants cause an increase in the crime rate. They often come from countries with dysfunctional states and bad enforcement institutions. Hence, they have grown to be more tolerant of violations of the law. The poverty of their countries of origin also pushes them towards more crime. Less crime is a good thing, hence less immigration is also a good thing.

Facts:

Immigration is associated with lower crime rates and lower incarceration rates.

5. The lack of integration argument

Claim:

Immigrants, especially those from other cultures (and that would be most immigrants, since it’s the poor who want to migrate and the poor are almost by definition from outside the West), find it hard to fit in. As a result, there will be frictions between the immigrant population and the original inhabitants. These frictions benefit nobody, hence we should restrict immigration.

Facts:

Natives are more likely to engage in antisocial behavior like bullying, dropping out of school, domestic violence, harassment, vandalism etc. The evidence is here.

6. The cultural argument

Claim:

The local culture will not be able to survive a large influx of high fertility immigrants from completely different cultures. People have a legitimate interest in the preservation of their distinctive cultural identity. Hence immigration should be restricted.

Facts:

A cultural identity is obviously a valuable good. However, it’s not at all clear that immigration threatens the cultures of destinations countries. Those destination countries are multicultural to begin with. Most immigrants are also  willing and able to adapt (see previous point). Moreover, cultural change is not by definition a bad thing, both for those arriving and for those already there. And finally, cultural change is not always likely to happen anyway: throughout history, even those minority cultures living in highly hostile environments where the majority controls the state have been able to survive and flourish. Often a threat to a culture is the cause of increased cultural awareness.

7. The educational argument

Claim:

Immigrant children push down the quality of schools and therefore harm the education of native children. Immigrant children have different types of disadvantages: they speak the local language less well, they have cultural burdens inhibiting education, and perhaps even IQ burdens. The welfare of native children requires that we limit immigration.

Facts:

Higher rates of immigration encourage native children to study harder – to complete high school and to go to university – so that they can avoid competing with immigrant high-school dropouts in the labor market.

Conclusion

All of these claims about immigration are based on supposed harms to the population of the destination country. (There’s one argument I didn’t mention, namely the brain drain argument, that focuses on the effects of migration on origin countries, but that one is just as flawed as the rest). Not only is this a very selfish mode of argument, ignoring the clear benefits for (potential) immigrants, but – as it turns out – also a very misguided one, based on factual errors. However, even if it were the case that immigration imposes some form of financial costs on host countries, then that wouldn’t necessarily be the final argument against immigration, since these cost can be seen as a form of global redistribution and global justice.

More posts in this series are here.

Migration and Human Rights (47): A Phenomenology of Borders

Let’s admit it: borders are an illusion. They don’t exist. The things that do exist are border controls, deportations, entry restrictions, visa requirements, border shootings etc. Those things are real enough and often painful for those feeling the brunt. They are facts in the original sense of the word, from the Latin facere, “to do”. They are things that people do to each other.

But none of those things, not even all those things put together, amount to what we think are borders. We believe, erroneously, that borders are separation lines, separating two or more political and geographical spaces, territories, or pieces of the earth. There’s a real physical, even earthly sense of separation that is implied in the border concept. Borders cut up the earth.

But of course they don’t, really. Borders aren’t facts but ideas, and as ideas they are more or less realized, but never completely real. Those who claim to protect the borders – the “front” in frontière – are not protecting a thing but are rather striving for an ideal, an ideal justified in their minds by a variety of other ideals (culture, prosperity, democracy etc.). The separations are merely fragmentary in real life. This is clear from the fact that people routinely cross borders illegally and without permission, as if there’s nothing there, or at least as if there isn’t a clear separation between territories. They may sometimes find that the difficulty of moving increases and then decreases. Even if they are stopped, shot, caught or deported – which often doesn’t happen – they don’t experience a so-called border. They merely experience an obstacle limited in space, not the territory-encompassing and circular separation that a border is claimed to be.

The lack of reality of borders is also evident from their lack of stability. Poland, for instance, ceased to exist completely for some time in its history and its borders fluctuated violently throughout. The Balkans have even given their name to the process of shifting borders. Sweden is perhaps an unexpected example of instability. China has been a series of different China’s throughout history. And here’s France.

In fact, you could pick just about any part of the world and see the same thing. Perhaps because we consume more news than history we tend to see international borders and the shapes of countries as fixed entities. It’s really a big news story when a territory secedes, when countries unify etc. And yet, over a slightly longer time frame, that is normality. You can look at this in two ways:

  • Either this proves the case for strong borders: most of the changes were due to foreign invasions.
  • Or it’s an argument for the lack of importance of borders: after all, if borders change over the course of a few decades, it’s hardly fair to keep people out who didn’t move and who turned from insiders to outsiders through no fault of their own.

My point is that both ways of looking at the reality of borders should retain some validity. If we agree that borders are an idea that can never be realized completely, then the argument is about the degree of realization. Border defenders should realize that there will always be unauthorized cross-border movement because they can’t have their factual separation the way they like it. Defenders of migration, on the other hand, should admit that “open borders” is not the same thing as “no borders”. Even if it’s just an idea, borders merit some attempt at realization. You can allow limitless immigration and yet try to defend the border against invading armies or immigrants intent on terrorist attacks. This way, your country can remain an independent entity – designed by its borders, or better its idea of a border – while opening its borders to immigrants. Also, you can allow limitless immigration and yet give citizenship only to people born within the country. That’s another way to retain your country and allow immigration at the same time. Hence, immigration restrictionists are wrong to claim that an open borders policy destroys the very concept of the border and equals a no borders policy.

More posts in this series are here.

Migration and Human Rights (46): The “Criminal Immigrant” Stereotype, Ctd.

As is often the case, there’s public opinion, there’s empirical reality, and there’s a lot of space between the two. One particularly harmful public myth is the one about the “criminal immigrant”. It’s harmful in several ways: it whips up support for immigration restrictions, which help to keep many foreigners poor, and it contributes to feelings of insecurity, which in turn lead to tough-on-crime policies and high rates of incarceration.

Kitty Calavita’s recent study in southern Europe, for example, reports that in Spain in 2002 a national poll found that 60 percent believed that immigrants were causing increases in the crime rate, while a survey conducted in Italy found that 57 percent of Italians agreed that “the presence of immigrants increases crime and delinquency.” (source)

Now, the facts:

Both contemporary and historical studies, including official crime statistics and victimization surveys since the early 1990s, data from the last three decennial censuses, national and regional surveys in areas of immigrant concentration, and investigations carried out by major government commissions over the past century, have shown instead that immigration is associated with lower crime rates and lower incarceration rates. (source)

Some data are here. In the U.S., crime rates have gone down when at the same time immigration rates have gone up.

More posts in this series are here.