The Refugee Crisis: The Shame of Europe

In the days that followed the death of Aylan Kurdi, there was a global display of grief, horror and outrage at the human cost of the refugee crisis. Even tabloids which had previously published notoriously (and vulgar) anti-immigrant sentiments, joined the chorus of voices demanding something be done to ensure an end to the death and misery of those making the perilous journey. Two months later, the Daily Mail published a cartoon of refugees storming the borders of Europe, accompanied by rats. The image encapsulated what the UN high commissioner for human rights described as “sustained and unrestrained anti-foreigner abuse, misinformation and distortion” from the British media. However, I believe the hostile response to refugees goes beyond this. Bias against foreigners is entrenched in the political establishment of Europe, which often targets migrants as a means of distracting from domestic policy failures. This results in the prevalence of anti-immigrant attitudes. Now, over a 120 leading figures from the field of economics and international organisations have signed a letter, condemning the woeful response of the British government to the refugee crisis. It is these views I wish to echo and support, as I believe this is a fundamental moral issue which is shaming Europe.

Firstly though, I would like to confront the economic arguments, which are often used by anti-immigration zealots, as a means to justify opposition, which in such circumstances, would otherwise be deemed as callous. Even in one of the most open and liberalised economies in the world, free movement of labour is contested within the mainstream political establishment. The adverse impact of migrants on the economy was a key theme of the Home Secretary’s Party Conference speech this year. However, I believe such views to be empirically wrong. Consider every great hub of developed economic activity across the world today. From New York to Hong Kong, we notice that every advanced region has at some point in their history experienced an influx of migrants. Regardless of the reason, be it war, famine, persecution, modern human history is abundant with examples of mass migration. In the days prior to the industrial development, economic conditions were intrinsically linked to population size. Agriculture has diminishing returns, so the more people working on a single plot of land, the less production there is. Industrial, capital based production however is different. We have constant or increasing returns. For each additional unit of labour and capital, the production increases either proportionately or even more rapidly. In essence, a developed society can sustain increasing populations, providing resources are available.

Kosovar refugees fleeing their homeland. [Blace area, The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia]. United Nations Photo / Creative Commons License

Kosovar refugees fleeing their homeland. United Nations Photo / Creative Commons License

This leads to the next line of argument, which I’m basing on the theory of circular and cumulative causation. Assume we have two regions within one nation, and suddenly one finds itself more prosperous, leading to increased wages. This will attract migrants from the other region, and as they arrive they enter the work force. The demand they bring to the economy, and the labour they provide encourages increased production, which stimulates profit growth. Profits are re-invested back into production, causing further expansion, creating more employment opportunities. Firms are attracted to the region, as it is close to a thriving consumer base, and a large pool of potential labour. The increased population results in greater tax revenue for the government, which leads to higher spending on public services such as education and health, as well as the local infrastructure. This does more to appeal to wider business, while improving the productivity of the local population. In effect, success drives success, and the influx of labour is vital for this process. In a dynamic and advanced capitalist economy, resources flow to where there is demand and prosperity. Ultimately this results in a scenario where a developed nation can sustain larger populations, through the simple fact migrants stimulate the growth which attracts resources in the first place. In addition to this, Europe has further incentive to welcome refugees, given that the region is facing an increasingly ageing population. In short, there are plenty of economic reasons to welcome refugees.

However, development economics is not just about monetary gain. Arguably the primary aim is to eradicate poverty. Amartya Sen, the celebrated economist and philosopher, once described poverty as the “deprivation of opportunity”, and by treating refugees with the contempt we have seen, we are not only accepting poverty, but supporting its continuation. The arguments of our government and many across Europe do not stand up to the scrutiny of economic analysis. By refusing to help those in Europe or offer the safe and legal routes to safety every human should be entitled too, we are not discouraging fleeing refugees. In every case of migration there are push and pull factors. The government is ignoring the intolerable and brutal conditions which are pushing people from Syria and other war torn and economically destitute nations to seek refuge in Europe. Refugees don’t base their decision on the welfare system of Europe. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to argue that the average refugee has a comprehensive knowledge of the vastly different welfare systems that exist across Europe. Instead they come because Europe is held as a beacon of human rights, civil liberties and economic prosperity. In neighbouring states, refugees find safety, but no opportunity. In Lebanon for example, to maintain residence, refugees must sign pledges to not work. Without the chance of bettering their lives, or providing their children with an education, they become forced to pursue refuge elsewhere.

DFID / Creative Commons License

DFID / Creative Commons License


The British government policy to reduce the scale of rescue operations in the Mediterranean was implemented based on a similar premise that this would act as a deterrent, yet the bodies continue to wash ashore. This should be enough to warn us that such a strategy is doomed. All this idea will achieve, is to push desperate refugees further into the hands of people smugglers and other clandestine activities, which endangers their lives, and makes the situation even more difficult for Europe to effectively deal with. Following the line set by the aforementioned leading economists, I believe it is time Britain acts to take a fair and proportionate share of refugees and establish safe, legal routes into the EU. We will not solve this crisis through inaction, in the hope it will just disappear. Now, more than ever is the time for Britain to display its humanity. Some believe what we are doing currently, to be enough. When refugees are giving tags to wear so they can eat, some would point out this is better than what they had. This is an awfully low bar to set for ourselves. If we ever hope to one day achieve universal development, we can’t strive to be better than our worst. Only when we can exceed our best expectations can we feel pride in how we have helped those in need. Only under a humanistic approach to refugees, migrants and human life in general can we achieve universal economic development.

By Dean Hochlaf


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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