The introduction of a thought-provoking book by Anthony de Jasay on political theory starts with the question: “What would you do if you were the state?” Imagine a reasonably informed, ambitious and unbiased public policy maker facing the challenges of the current refugee crisis – or, for that matter, any responsible citizen asking himself or herself that question.
The response, I will argue, is quite straightforward, given the available alternatives. It emerges from a flow chart of reasoning, starting with what to do while potential refugees are still in their region of origin, proceeding to what to do once they have reached EU-Europe, and concluding with what to do once they have settled in a country of destination.
Addressing the roots of the problem in the region
Policy makers have two basic options to cope with the challenges of refugee influx while potential refugees are still in their home country or region of origin. The first option is to eliminate the possibility to enter Europe. Measures to keep out refugees and migrants could be the building of fences, deploying of border guards and Frontex operations. Additionally, they may choose administrative admission restrictions according to country of origin, such as Safe Third Country Agreements, counter-terrorism checks, enhanced screening for irregular migrants other than refugees, limitation of family reunification, or deportation using acceptance agreements with governments of sending countries.
The other option is to eliminate the reasons and motivation for leaving. For example, bringing civil wars to an end in countries of origin, or by disseminating awareness of bleak prospects prevailing for refugees in the desired countries of destination, thus diminishing “pull” factors. This option implies that potential refugees become convinced that there is no need for them to leave, as their conditions will soon change for the better, or that conditions in potential countries of destination are insufficiently attractive and not even minimally hospitable. Addressing the motivation to leave has to do with shaping the assessment on the part of potential refugees of the overall foreseeable difference between conditions “here” and “there.”
Another strategic effort at limiting the influx of refugees is to motivate refugees to stay in the region (Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon) rather than continue to Europe. This requires a defensive strategy which involves considerable transfers and political compromises, especially with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
But there are daunting obstacles to curtailing motivation to leave, including:
- there is currently no agency or strategy to accomplish a preference shift in favour of staying rather than fleeing through “causal therapy”, namely the pacification of conflict;
- there is, at best, a limited potential for the sealing of borders; in particular of maritime borders, as one cannot build fences in salt water;
- there are international legal obligations to grant asylum to “genuine” refugees: the Geneva Convention on refugee rights does not know the terms “quota” or “admission limit”;
- refugees from the MENA region and its Eastern and Southern EU neighbours will continue to arrive in Europe by the millions, given the widely shared anticipation of state-failure and the rise of non-state actors in the region, as well as the perception of a closing window of opportunity of a European escape. Even more are to be expected to arrive from Africa trying to escape the consequences of unmitigated climate change.
Finding solutions in EU-Europe
After refugees have arrived in EU-Europe and have passed the administrative filters mentioned above, the alternatives our policy-maker faces are those between supranational burden sharing among EU member states and individual member states’ pursuit of cost-minimizing advantage and non-cooperation. The first of these options means that a consensual distribution of refugees among member states through implementation of EU policies of burden sharing. The second option boils down to a coercive distribution, be it through Dublin deportation to “country of first entry”, closing borders, or limiting access (against the Schengen agreement). It may also include other beggar-thy-neighbour moves and ethno-nationalist campaigns for “negative attractiveness”, emphasizing the extent to which refugees are not welcome in particular countries.
Refugees necessarily have to be given a say in their choice of country of permanent residence. The result of a non-cooperative stance of some member states, however, would further weaken the political capacities of the EU through a deepening of the East-West divide between the old member states and the Visegrád countries, plus Romania. It thus depends on the member states’ compliance with the letter and the spirit of the Treaties, as well as on the capacity of EU institutions, to enforce cooperation. The outcome at this stage will be mainly through negative sanctions, whether through contractual burden sharing or coercive unilateralism.
After settlement in a particular country of destination has to follow one of two trajectories. One is to allow for the full integration of migrants through the proper administrative registration, provision of housing, education, training, labour market access, and social and health services. Enlisting civil society’s assistance is central to this approach. This must include the simultaneous “integration” of local populations into a political community that is built on bonds other than ethnic identity, helping them to adjust to multi-ethnic, socio-economic conditions and sharing requirements. Opting for this strategy may be facilitated by references to the argument that the integration of refugees may help to close demographic and labour supply gaps of ageing European societies, and by ignoring the argument that every “brain gain” in Europe causes “brain drain” in the country of origin, with the latter making a post-conflict rebuilding of countries of origin all the more difficult.
The alternative perspective is one that sees integration of migrants as a challenge. In this case, refugees must largely meet their needs by their own means, efforts, and demonstrated “integrations readiness.” The provision of housing, education, and job opportunities is not considered a priority of public policy for the policy-maker. The pursuit of the latter strategy will nurture the appeal of populist political forces advocating an exclusivist approach to the refugee crisis on ethno-nationalist and anti-Islamic ideological grounds – a syndrome of xenophobic attitudes that is known to thrive on conditions where refugees and other foreigners are few and marginalized. Yet this presumably cheaper strategy also involves the risk of a long-term integration failure and the political costs of a massive political polarization in countries of settlement, as well as the rise of a semi-integrated, post-migratory underclass that is comparable in its disruptive potential to the post-colonial underclass of the big cities in France and Britain.
Which of these two orientations policy makers will adopt – strong vs. reluctant integration efforts – will ultimately depend on their assessment of the political profitability of fear-mongering and, on the other hand, their readiness to adopt far-sighted solutions as suggested by first alternative of a robust policy of integration.
This article first appeared on Social Europe .