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.

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 (7)

Citizens typically enjoy the best human rights protection of anyone in the territory of a country, relatively speaking. Even in badly governed states or dictatorships they are better off than immigrants, legal or illegal. And also in perfect democracies do citizens enjoy more rights than legal immigrants: the former have political rights, the latter do not. See this post for more information about this difference.

However, in a perfect democracy, legal immigrants and citizens enjoy the same level of protection with regard to all other types of rights, non-political rights such as freedom rights. This is called the principle of constitutional universality.

Illegal immigrants of course have a much harder time, even in perfect democracies. As they live in the “dark” they will find it difficult to come forward to complain about rights violations or to go to the police or the judge. Doing so will reveal their illegal status and will result in forcible return to their country of origin.

Asylum seekers or refugees have an even harder time because they are usually imprisoned for the duration of their asylum application. And as they are imprisoned, they usually find it difficult to escape into illegality when their application is denied. Compared to normal illegal immigrants, the government knows where they are – in prison – and hence can easily return them to their own country.

The worst off are the modern slaves. Many of them end up in slavery as a consequence of migration and trafficking, but not all. Many modern slaves are normal citizens.

Since citizens generally enjoy the best rights protection, it is a good strategy for non-citizens to try to become citizens. Traditionally, only legal immigrants can apply for citizenship (when some conditions are fulfilled). Asylum seekers, when their application is accepted, become legal immigrants and then they can, in the next step, try to apply for citizenship. If their asylum application is rejected, they are either send back or disappear into illegality. Together with other illegal immigrants, they first have to become legal immigrants (for example through some kind of amnesty measure) before they can hope to apply for citizenship.

Migration and Human Rights (4): Asylum

Asylum is a form of protection that allows individuals to remain in a country, provided that they meet the definition of a refugee. Eventually, they may become permanent residents or even nationals.

People seeking asylum in another country do so because they have been persecuted or fear they will be persecuted on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. They usually petition for asylum when they enter a country, and the government of the country decides on a case-to-case basis, according to its own rules, whether or not to grant asylum to a particular person. A person has to fulfill certain conditions before being granted asylum. These conditions differ widely from one country to another. Some countries have a very restrictive policy.

When asylum is denied, states usually deport the asylum seekers, back to their own country or to a third country. During the period leading up to the decision whether or not to grant asylum, states often detain the asylum seekers (and their families and children) in special prisons. Nevertheless, many failed applicants manage to remain illegally in the country. However, whether deported or gone underground, failed asylum seekers often lead miserable lives. And then we forget all those that didn’t make it to the country of application. Asylum seekers often undertake hazardous and fatal journeys.

People have a right to asylum (see article 14 of the Universal Declaration). It’s a very old legal notion (e.g. the medieval church sanctuaries). The grounds for asylum are however, rather limited. There should be some kind of persecution. An important question is whether economic refugees should be given asylum. I think they should. Poverty is just as much a violation of human rights as forcing someone to change his or her religion.

However, unrestricted economic asylum does not seem to be possible. Flooding rich countries with millions of economic refugees will not help anybody. It will destroy economic welfare in the few places where it exists, without offering any real improvement for the disadvantaged.

The same is true for other kinds of refugees. In principle people should be protected, whatever their origin. But of course, a state is no longer obliged to grant asylum if the applicants are so numerous that accepting all of them would lead to chaos and economic problems in the receiving country. Accepting them anyway would mean sacrificing the rights of the people of the receiving country without being able to do much in favor of the rights of the refugees.

Combating human rights violations in the country of origin is the best way to solve refugee problems. Most people do not want to flee, so accepting them as refugees is not the best solution from their point of view, even though it is still better than not accepting them and it makes it possible to protect their rights.

What Are Human Rights? (15): Constitutionally Universal

The theme of this post is the often difficult relationship between citizenship and human rights. This relationship is difficult because human rights, which are explicitly rights for all people everywhere, without distinctions of any kind, seem to require citizenship, and hence a distinction between groups of somehow differentiated people, for their protection. Without citizenship, it is argued, human rights remain a wish rather than a reality, potential rather than effective. Indeed, we often see that non-citizens such as refugees, asylum-seekers or stateless people suffer more rights violations than the citizens of the countries in which they happen to find themselves, even if these countries are comparatively well functioning democracies.

I want to argue that there are no legal reasons to consider citizenship as some kind of necessary condition for the protection of the rights of people within the territory of a state. Or, to put it negatively, that there are no legal reasons to treat the rights of non-citizens with less respect than the rights of citizens, or to accept violations of the rights of non-citizens with more ease than violations of the rights of citizens. There has to be, in other words, equality of protection between citizens and non-citizens. Citizenship therefore should be irrelevant for the protection of the human rights of the people within a given state territory. The state should be blind in this respect and treat non-citizens as if they were citizens. Non-citizens should have the same legal, judicial and other means to stand up for their rights.

The legal argument is based on Article 2, paragraph 1 of The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states the following:

“Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to respect and to ensure to all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognized in the present Covenant, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status”.

The widely held but mistaken belief that the rights of non-citizens residing in a state are, perhaps inevitably, more precarious than the rights of the citizens living beside them, goes back to the historically important role of citizenship in the practice of protecting human rights. Theoretically, citizenship is irrelevant to human rights. These rights are the equal rights of all human beings, equally and unconditionally. It is not justified to say that one should be white, male, citizen or whatever to be able to enjoy the protection of these rights. Universality, equality and unconditionality are perhaps the main characteristics of human rights. That is where they got their name. They would not be called human rights if this were not the case.

Although theoretically these rights come with no conditions attached, in reality and in practice there are many necessary conditions for their effective protection: a well functioning judiciary, a separation of powers, a certain mentality, certain economic conditions etc. Too many to name them all, unfortunately. But the one we should name and explain is citizenship. Historically, it was because people were citizens of a state that they could use and improve the institutions and judicial instruments of the state, including the executive powers, to enforce their rights. It is this historical contingency, the fact that people have always found their citizenship very useful for their human rights, which has led many to believe that there is some kind of special link between citizenship and human rights which makes it possible and acceptable to treat the rights of non-citizens with less respect. That rights are only accessible to citizens. That the rights of man have often been the “rights of an Englishman” in the words of Burke.

“The survivors of the extermination camps, the inmates of concentration and internment camps, and even the comparatively happy stateless people could see … that the abstract nakedness of being nothing but human was their greatest danger” (Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism).

The state, although it does not grant rights, has to recognize them and make them real, but not only for citizens. The constitution, the main instrument for recognizing human rights, should and nowadays often does explicitly guarantee rights for humans, and not merely rights for citizens. Everybody within the territory of the state, not only the citizens of the state, can then enjoy the human rights protected by the constitution. Citizens as well as non-citizens can then go to court and challenge unjust laws or acts of state. Both categories of people have legal personality. This is often called the constitutional universality of rights.

The protection of the economic rights of non-citizens is an even more contentious matter. Should non-citizens have the same healthcare protection, social security, education etc.? In principle yes, but some countries may have such a large number of non-citizens in their territory that the economic viability of their social security system comes under threat. The tax payers ability to fund the system is limited, and non-citizens normally don’t pay taxes.

Migration and Human Rights (3): Refugees

A refugee is an involuntary migrant or a “push-migrant”. It’s the situation in the home country – usually war, famine or persecution or a combination – which forces or pushes him or her to migrate abroad, usually to one of the neighboring countries. The refugee is different from other types of migrants, such as the people who feel the “pull” of economic opportunity which, voluntarily or involuntarily (in the case of extreme poverty), drives them abroad.

Refugees who flee war, famine or oppression but do not leave their home country are called internally displaced persons.

Countries have an obligation to accept refugee on their territory. Article 14 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights states that

1. Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution. 2. This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

However, this obligation is often rejected by countries. Countries often subject

“refugees to arbitrary arrest, detention, denial of social and economic rights and closed borders. In the worst cases, the most fundamental principle of refugee protection, non-refoulement, is violated, and refugees are forcibly returned to countries where they face persecution.” Human Rights Watch (http://hrw.org/doc/?t=refugees&document_limit=0,2)

The states that create the refugee problem also have obligations. Article 13 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights states that

Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Therefore, countries have an obligation to create or restore the circumstances which make it possible for people to return home. It’s up to these countries, with the assistance of the international community, to address the root causes that force people to flee.

 

 

What is Democracy? (23): Democracy is Peace, Ctd.

Tyrannies, compared to democracies, are more likely to cause wars. Tyrannies violate human rights and these violations make it very difficult to maintain the rule of law (different human rights institute the rule of law, and the indivisibility of human rights means that the whole body of human rights is in danger when some human rights suffer). Without the rule of law, it is very hard to maintain a justice system which that can channel conflicts away from violence. As a consequence, these conflicts can escalate and can become violent. People start to take the law in their own hands. They start to steal, to compensate for goods stolen, and to murder, to compensate for murder. Revenge is seen as the only alternative for justice, and revenge tends to escalate. Large-scale conflict and civil war become a very real threat. And civil wars have a tendency to become international wars.

Moreover, violations of human rights create anger, frustration and revolt (this is true for all types of rights, economic rights included), and can therefore be a direct cause of civil war. And civil war can lead to international war.

However, there is an even more direct link between rights violations and international conflict. Rights violations can create tensions with neighboring countries because of refugee flows, which result from rights violations or civil war. Neighboring countries can decide to intervene in these rights violations or in a civil war, to protect their own safety and prosperity. This intervention can, of course, lead to an international conflict. It is, however, the internal situation in a country and not the intervention from the outside, which causes the conflict. It is the country in which human rights are violated, which creates international instability.