New Migration Realities

The exodus and our conscience

7 April 2016

How do the different arguments shaping our perceptions of the refugee crisis intersect? An ethic of responsibility must fully consider the consequences of our response

Paul Scheffer

The days when news of drowned refugees made the headlines is now largely over. Early in the new year we were able to read in a small item at the foot of page 13 of De Volkskrant: “On Tuesday, the bodies of 36 refugees were found washed up on the Turkish coast and in the sea. Twelve people were rescued from the rocks in the Aegean Sea after a search. It was the worst incident of the new year. According to the Turkish authorities, the refugees came from Syria, Iraq and Algeria. Women and children were among the dead.”

The most tangible illustration of the heightened importance of external borders is the humanitarian disaster on those borders: the thousands of refugees who have lost their lives in a desperate attempt to reach mainland Europe by boat. It is estimated that, since the turn of the century, 22,000 people have drowned in the Mediterranean, making it the most deadly border in the world. For comparison, on average around 400 migrants have died at the US-Mexico border every year during the same period, making a total of around 6,000.

In this refugee crisis, two feelings sit uncomfortably together in most people: a significant majority wants society to contribute to taking in refugees, yet at the same time the same majority expects that the arrival of so many refugees will cause tension. That discomfort is reflected in public opinion on the refugee crisis, where several different arguments intersect. First, there is morality, then self-interest, then powerlessness, and finally an appeal is made to the law. It is striking that, for supporters of open borders, all four arguments point in the same direction: taking in refugees is a moral obligation, the arrival of large numbers of young migrants is in our interests, we can no longer control our borders anyway and international law compels us to allow in unlimited numbers.

An incidental or structural problem?

All these arguments, which are also somewhat mutually contradictory, are open to a good deal of debate. However, before we go into that, we must answer the question of whether the increase in the number of refugees and migrants is incidental or structural. Ample evidence points to the latter, if we consider how unstable the countries around our borders have become. Europe is surrounded by a series of failing states, from the former Soviet Union, via the Middle East to the countries of north Africa. The Mediterranean as an area of free movement is under enormous pressure.

We could have known what lay ahead if we had read Millennium by French thinker and politician Jacques Attali. In this little book from 1990, about the coming world order, Attali wrote of the large groups which would try to escape war and poverty in many parts of the world: “The movement of populations has already begun, only the scale will increase”. He has been proven right in this diagnosis, made a quarter of a century ago at the height of liberal euphoria over the end of the cold war.

I intend to restrict myself to the Arab world here. Forecasts indicate that the population in the region is set to grow enormously. In 1950, 76 million people lived in the region, increasing to 360 million in 2010, and this will go up again to 630 million people in 2050. The population of Egypt grew from just 21 million people in 1950 to 91 million in 2015, half of them under the age of 24. An imbalance like this will add to the pressure on these societies, with a large group of young people in a hopeless situation who only want one thing: to get out. Arab governments are doing little to curb illegal emigration, or even see it as a way of putting pressure on richer countries to secure concessions.

The roots of the crisis in the region are not just economic and demographic, but also cultural and religious. The Arab Human Development Report 2002 paints a dramatic picture. Three major deficiencies are established in the report, which was actually produced by researchers from the countries in question. These deficiencies in the Arab world concern lack of freedom, the unfavourable position of women and a disastrous knowledge deficit. There is therefore sufficient reason to expect that the chaos in our vicinity will continue, and that is before we get to more distant parts of Africa or the Far East


This brings us to the moral dimension of the refugee issue: morality is not coincidentally the first concept that shapes our attitude. We have seen the photos of desperate people risking everything to seek refuge. All of today’s and yesterday’s images flow together: behind the streams of refugees on abandoned railway lines somewhere in the Balkans, we see images of Bosnians in the 1990s, fleeing Germans after the end of the second world war, or Greeks who fled Smyrna as it burned during the Greco-Turkish war in the early 1920s. All these images ultimately lead back to an archaic source: the exodus is truly timeless.

Who is left unmoved by the stories that Syrian refugees bring with them out of the devastation of Homs? Take the experiences of 24-year-old Shiham Atassi, reported in NRC Handelsblad, for one. When war broke out, she applied to join the ambulance service: “She witnessed countless serious injuries and deaths. Some of them really stayed with her, like the man who was shot in the head by a sniper on a busy street. No one dared to stop, because helping anyone was very dangerous too. She and her colleagues did though, moving as fast as possible, head low to the ground, with as much cover from the ambulance as possible. She was sitting next to the driver when she heard her male colleague, a giant of a man, cry out in the back of the ambulance. She looked round to find that he had the man’s brain in his hand – it had fallen out of the hole in his head.” This is just one of the horrifying stories we have heard in recent months.

It is thus impossible for us to say that we have no knowledge of it, and it therefore lies heavy on our conscience. We say we cannot bear the picture of a drowned child, but what evokes that response in us? It is certainly not an unambiguous reaction: images documenting atrocities can trigger sympathy and resignation, but also rejection. Ultimately, rejection of the needs that surround us can win out over the willingness to help. I think in any case that sustainable ethics cannot be based on the shock that images cause, but instead on the experiences that people have and share.

In the past six months, our eastern neighbours, the Germans, have become embroiled in a case of moral overstatement that quickly had to be revised. In August, German president Joachim Gauck, on a visit to a centre for asylum seekers in Berlin, contrasted a Germany full of light with a dark Germany. In this way, the spokesman of the culture of welcome rejected the xenophobia gripping a section of society. He corrected his words a little later: clearly there were also many citizens in the middle of society who were genuinely concerned about taking in refugees. On that occasion, Gauck suddenly spoke about the finite intake capacity of his country: “We have a big heart, but our capabilities are limited.”

In this refugee crisis, it is a matter of balancing two obligations: caring for the wellbeing of the country’s own population within its borders and caring for victims of violence outside those borders. We risk losing the social centre ground through polarisation between supporters of open borders and supporters of closed borders. In practice, it boils down to this: anyone who wants to place a centre for 1,500 asylum seekers in a town with 10,000 residents is making a big mistake. Such an idea disregards a large majority of the population who are very ready to be open to a group of 300 newcomers, for example. This provokes conflicts that can easily end in violence.

Here we must return to Max Weber’s famous distinction between the ethic of conviction and the ethic of responsibility. According to Weber, there is “an immeasurably profound contrast between acting according to the maxim of the ethic of conviction – to speak in religious terms: “the Christian does the right thing and leaves the outcome in God’s hands”, and acting according to the ethic of responsibility: that one must answer for the (foreseeable) consequences of one’s actions.” What Angela Merkel can be reproached for is the fact that she has elevated her practical improvisation in an emergency situation into a fundamental conviction that an unlimited welcome must continue to apply, even as she attempts step by step to put into practice the opposite of the rhetoric she keeps repeating.

The ethic of responsibility, however, says something else: the foreseeable consequences of such an unlimited welcome are increasing tension and aggression in society. No one is bound to do the impossible. If people with a liberal attitude do not want to think about borders, then people with an authoritarian attitude will. The moral vacuum will be filled, for good or ill. That risk of increasing aggression is now a near-daily reality in countries like Germany and Sweden.


This brings us to the second concept echoing through the refugee debate: self-interest. Since people do not have complete confidence in the morality of conviction, in the next breath an appeal is made to self-interest: we are in great need of these refugees – often young men – in our labour market. On a continent with an ageing population, we cannot really do without their vitality. This supposed self-interest is just as poorly understood as the nature of the moral obligation, which we actually see more clearly if we do not dilute it with an appeal to self-interest.

Stephan Sanders puts it well: the asylum seekers that we now admit within our borders do not represent human capital first and foremost, but rather a great deal of human misery. I would prefer not to speak of refugees in terms of costs and benefits, but since some commentators speak so easily about a win-win situation, we cannot avoid it. Rather than immediately labelling the arrival of refugees as enriching, let us take a clear look at the tangible and intangible ‘costs’ to society, so that we can gain an insight into the task of integration that lies before us and can make a better judgement about taking in a significant number of refugees.

The intangible costs are made very clear in an interview with German human rights activist Max Klingberg, who has been working in asylum centres for 15 years. There is a sharp edge to the refugee issue: should we offer shelter to people who profoundly doubt or even despise the fundamental principles of our societies? Klingberg argues that: “We – by which I mean people who help in centres for asylum seekers either professionally or voluntarily, but also politicians – need to move away from the idea that all refugees are human rights activists.” He continues with the observation that minorities and women have serious difficulties in the reception centres: “Refugees include a lot of religious fanatics, but also for example men who think it is entirely normal to beat their wife. We need to understand that the ideas refugees have do not change as soon as they cross the border into Europe.”

These forms of piety and tradition obviously do not apply to all refugees, but they are not marginal phenomena either. In the Arab world, views of men and women persist that can prompt intimidating or violent behaviour. It evidently took a large-scale assault in Cologne before the significance of such cultural differences could be openly discussed. Leaving those incidents to one side, it is very clear that an unlimited welcome to asylum seekers will not lead to an unlimited willingness to adapt. The migration history of recent decades shows that it is very difficult for people to bridge mental gaps like these.

It should now be clear to everyone that the arrival of large numbers of migrants and refugees goes hand in hand with cultural confrontations. You may still say that we are open to people in need, even though we know that oppression does not inherently make someone a friend of freedom. In this way, we do at least know what we are choosing, as the collision of very different worldviews causes a loss of trust in a society. In the long term, a new culture of trust can come into being, but that kind of thing takes time. If we take into consideration the fact that the strength of our societies historically lay precisely in a high level of trust, we quickly understand what may be lost and we see better that there should be limits on our welcoming of newcomers.

When it comes to tangible costs, businesses are understandably enthusiastic about talented newcomers, but society will have to bear the consequences of the less successful migrants over the longer term. According to the Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau (Dutch social research and advisory body), the employment level of refugee groups is not good: Somalis 26 per cent; Iraqis 34 per cent; Afghans 42 per cent; and Iranians 60 per cent. The conclusion of the research was: “The non-working population is at its largest in the refugee groups, apart from the Iranian Dutch.” New research confirms that picture: of the Syrians who have been taken in in recent years, 60 per cent receive benefits. Where does our confidence that everything will be fine with the new refugees over the next few years come from? What is more, women and children will also follow the men to Europe as part of family formation and reunification, which will result in employment rates falling even lower.

It is important that the ‘loss’ is clear in our minds: this crisis will cost a lot of money in the coming years. We can then still say: we choose to take in a significant number of refugees. It would be good if the government would provide clarity on the costs, then the public could at least take on this challenge with its eyes open. The sums needed for housing, benefits, education and medical care are quite clear to see. But it is rather unlikely that this will yield a very favourable trade-off in economic terms over the next five to 10 years.

A demographic argument is also often brought in to explain the self-interest served by the arrival of refugees: the idea is that we need the predominantly young refugees because our society is ageing. The reality is that the ageing of the population, which in the near future will have a profound effect on our lifestyle and social structure, cannot be compensated for with migration from countries outside Europe. If one wanted to keep the old-age dependency ratio in the Netherlands, for example, at the current level until 2050, the Centraal Planbureau (Dutch office for economic policy analysis) calculated in 2003 that net migration would need to be around 300,000 per year, i.e. ten times the current level. In 2050, the population would then comprise 39 million people, after which a new ageing problem would arise as the first of those migrants became senior citizens.

The figures are comparable for other countries. The United Nations body concerned with population projections calculated these in the study Replacement Migration: Is It a Solution to Declining and Ageing Populations? The report sent out shock waves when it was published in 2001. If the old-age dependency ratio were to be kept at the current level until 2050, annual net migration into Europe of around 25 million would be required. It is very clear that ageing can never make the argument for mass immigration by itself.


All in all, the appeal to self-interest is not very compelling, and we therefore see another argument appearing in the refugee debate, namely an appeal to powerlessness. The reasoning goes like this: it may not be in our interest to take in refugees, but we are not in a position to prevent them anyway, as the borders can de facto no longer be controlled. It was a feeling of loss of control that Chancellor Merkel called on when she commented in a television interview that Germany can no longer secure its three thousand kilometre-long border.

This argument also raises all kinds of questions, as the powerlessness invoked when it comes to border control is suddenly deemed completely irrelevant when it comes to the integration of perhaps over a million refugees in a year. It is a huge social experiment that Merkel is embarking on with the forced optimism of the phrase ‘Wir schaffen das’ (We can do this). Why is it that Germany can do this and yet, at the same time, this highly developed country that monitors its citizens day and night can no longer control its borders? Open borders are something you can choose, but if you no longer want to guard your borders, it masks lack of political will rather than police powerlessness.

We immediately see that it is not about a genuine loss of control if we look at the deal with Turkey, whereby money is paid and political commitments are made which strengthen President Erdogan’s position, in exchange for effective border control by Turkey. Why would Turkey be able to do what we can suddenly no longer do in the rest of Europe? We thus outsource border control to Mr Erdogan’s authoritarian regime, just as we previously outsourced it to Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya and outsource it today to Morocco, with its harsh treatment of illegal immigrants from Africa. Outsourcing border control is something you can do, but you cannot then talk about powerlessness, let alone a moral duty.

We can now see just how vulnerable and therefore susceptible to blackmail the European Union has become. In his speech on receiving the Charlemagne Prize 2014, Herman Van Rompuy said that many people no longer see the EU as a protector: “Europe, the friend of freedom and space, is seen now as a threat to protection and place. We need to get the balance right. It is essential for the Union to be also on the protecting side.” The conclusion is that the EU must see itself more as a protective buffer that makes it possible to strive for a unique society in a turbulent world.


Since the appeal to powerlessness is ultimately unconvincing, we finally see a fourth underlying concept that influences opinion on the refugee issue: the law. Perhaps we could better control the borders of Europe, but the Refugee convention makes damming the flow of refugees in this way impossible. It is striking that the approach to public law on this issue is not very robust. Whenever Bart De Wever, leader of the populist New Flemish Alliance, suggests that the 1951 Geneva conventions need to be amended, a chorus of public law specialists falls upon him, but the same lawyers were nowhere to be found when Chancellor Merkel arbitrarily suspended the Dublin convention within the space of a day. Selective use of international law is apparent in the refugee debate.

The law on asylum is also very haphazardly applied. For example, in Canada in 1996, around 80 per cent of the asylum seekers from Sri Lanka were recognised as refugees, while in the same year the UK accepted virtually no applications for asylum from that country. French former minister Anicet Le Pors, a lawyer who worked on asylum cases for many years, observed the same thing in France. Le Pors was interviewed by Le Monde last year, an interview published under the headline ‘The great asylum lottery’. In the interview, he said there are major differences between judges who have to rule on asylum cases. In his film Poortwachters (Gatekeepers), about the IND (Dutch immigration and nationalisation agency), René Roelofs also clearly shows how difficult it is to assess the credibility of refugee claims.

There is a further factor of significance: the British philosopher Michael Dummett – and with him other advocates of open borders, such as Joseph Carens and Phillip Cole – points out a contradiction in international law. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights establishes that every person has the right to leave their country and to return there. At the same time, nowhere is it established that there is a general obligation for people who leave their country to be taken in elsewhere, with the exception of people categorised as refugees. In short, the choice to emigrate is a universal human right, but it conflicts with the restrictive immigration policy that continues to apply under national sovereignty. Dummett notes that: “The principle of open frontiers ought to be accepted as the norm: a norm from which deviation can be justified only in quite exceptional circumstances.”

The underlying thought is that inhabitants have no special rights compared to newcomers. Who are we to exercise a ‘right of primogeniture’? Why should a country only belong to its indigenous inhabitants? Is this legacy of centuries there for everyone to use? Why should those who happen to live there be able to claim any exclusive special right? Are we not all newcomers in the country where we are born? A counter-argument can be made that this principle conflicts with the idea that a society is also founded on a contract between generations. It is not surprising that the advocates of open borders only talk about rights, as those who disregard a society’s historical dimension also lack the sense of obligation that results from it.

A distinction must be made between civil rights and human rights. Human rights are universal, while civil rights are territorial. This means that not everyone has access to the rights constituted within our borders. In particular, the welfare state creates limits on the number of people that can be accommodated within a society. The misconception of some, who hold that human rights lead dogmatically to a culture of unlimited welcome, is that civil rights should be accessible without limitation.

Each community exists by the grace of borders, which may be more or less open, but without a definite dividing line between those inside and outside those borders, it does not work. This is also something that leftwing liberal philosopher Michael Walzer emphasises: “the distinctiveness of cultures and groups depends upon closure and, without it, cannot be conceived as a stable feature of human life.” He adds that members of a political community have a collective civil right to determine who can and cannot be admitted.

Fully considering consequences

What we need is therefore, in summary, an ethic of responsibility that considers the foreseeable consequences of an unlimited welcome of asylum seekers, with a realistic assessment of the social ‘costs’ and frictions that the arrival of large numbers of newcomers brings. We should abandon the appeal to powerlessness when it comes to border control. It boils down to the fact that international law couples a humanitarian obligation with a framework for action that takes into account the limits on taking in newcomers.

We now have a choice before us: an unlimited welcome where the price to be paid is division, or a limited welcome with the guarantee of citizenship. However, that choice has not been clearly put on the agenda. From where does this inability to think about borders come? What moral timidity is brought to light here?

There are real opportunities to bring some order to bear in the crisis at our borders. More can be done in relation to receiving refugees in the region: countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan must be given help. We can also take an annual quota of refugees from those countries into Europe to ease the pressure on them. Such numbers should not be strictly applied and may, as and when societies are able to do so, be made more generous. And finally, we need to do what should have been done all along: control our external borders better.

In discourse about borders, generosity is easily forgotten. We cannot shut ourselves off from the atrocities around us. The will to contribute to relieving need in other parts of the world does not arise, all being well, from a feeling of post-colonial guilt. Europe seeks to be a community of values, and to promote human rights beyond its continent. At the same time, Europe has limited influence on global disorder and must provide protection against the consequences of the wars in our vicinity.

Let me be clear: we need borders precisely so that we can continue to be generous. If we disregard them, we will quickly be heading towards the situation put into words by German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger. In Civil War, he follows the reasoning of the ethic of responsibility, and declares that we must reject fantasies of moral omnipotence: “Moral demands that are disproportionate to the possibilities for action ultimately lead to the people on whom these requirements are imposed rejecting all responsibility utterly. Therein lies the seed of a barbarism that can easily overflow into anger and aggression.”

Photo credit: Edward Crawford / Shutterstock.com