Europe’s Refugee Problem

I’m curious to hear what PoT-heads and fellow travellers think of the refugee crisis brewing in Europe. It’s the talk of almost all the newspapers, magazines, and news networks here in the United Kingdom. Is it the same in the U.S.? What are the legal/moral arguments for/against the U.S. to take in these war-torn refugees? I’m slowly gaining consciousness from my summer hibernation, so I don’t have a robust opinion on the matter at the moment.

8 thoughts on “Europe’s Refugee Problem

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  2. I’m interested to hear reasons why Syrian refugees should be treated any differently from ordinary immigrants. Potential reason I can come up with off the top of my head:

    – The refugees are migrating at a faster speed and in a larger block than normal immigrants (though considering the high standard rate of Latin American migration to America and Eastern European immigration to Western Europe, I’m not sure how much variance there is).
    – Most of the refugees are Muslims, and therefore present some sort of security threat to the US or Europe
    – Most of the refugees are Muslims, and therefore could cause cultural instability in the US or Europe
    – Refugees lack the natural self-selection of higher ambition and economic productivity that characterizes typical immigrants.
    – Refugees generally lack family/cultural support in the countries to which they are immigrating, and therefore require assistance from charities, or more often, governments and NGOs.


  3. I have no definite views about the matter, but one fairly obvious difference between refugees and ordinary immigrants is that refugees are, well, refugees. The trouble is not simply that they lack familial or cultural support in the countries to which they are fleeing, but that they’re fleeing from a situation in which their lives are directly threatened. I suppose one could flatten out the differences and maintain that plenty of ordinary immigrants are trying to escape from difficult or even oppressive situations. But neither my European friends who want to teach in American universities nor the poor Mexicans who would like to be able to earn a stable income for their families nor the many sorts of would-be immigrants in between are trying to escape from a war zone in which the distinction between combatants and civilians is virtually non-existent. So one prima facie reason to think of refugees differently than ordinary immigrants is that if somebody doesn’t take them in, they’ll be stuck in a place where their very survival is seriously in jeopardy. Not only does this seem to be a relevant difference, it seems to be a difference that counts in favor of taking them in, and taking them in more quickly. I don’t mean to dismiss any of the various sorts of security or economic concerns that the situation might raise — though I think we should dismiss the “they’re Muslim, so they’re dangerous” line out of hand; I’ve known a lot of Muslims, and they’re not even as dangerous as some of the right-wing evangelical Christians I’ve known. I’m also not sure how we might reason from “somebody should take them in” to “we (whoever ‘we’ are) should take them in.” But surely the facts of what they’re fleeing from can’t be irrelevant here.


    • David,

      I basically agree with what you say, but I think you’re too dismissive of the security concerns Matt raises. It’s very likely that if we let Syrian refugees in en masse, we will get some Islamists and some terrorists. The question is whether we’re willing to accepts those risks given the humanitarian crisis involved (a crisis for which we bear part responsibility, since the Iraq War destabilized the region, as did the Libyan intervention in the case of Libyan refugees). Though the threats from them have probably been exaggerated, the case of Somali immigrants is a case in point. Allowing them in after the civil war there was certainly a laudable thing, but it led to its dislocations, including terrorist recruitment of Somali youth here.

      There’s an inescapable trade-off between a liberal asylum policy and domestic security. The more you emphasize the security of people already in the country against threats entering from the outside, the longer it will take to vet incoming refugees. But the longer it takes to vet them, the fewer of them can make it into the country. There’s a balance to be achieved re both sets of issues. I don’t know what the balance is, but achieving it requires admitting that there are problems on either side.

      What I find particularly unfortunate is the libertarian approach to this issue: the combination of dogmatic “open borders” talk combined with very loud derision for democratic deliberation. Taken literally, Open Borders is either a non-starter or an invitation to outright chaos. We have to find some rationally defensible mean between wild-eyed inclusion and xenophobic exclusion. But we have to find that mean, collectively, via democratic deliberation. Finding it is not something that can easily be done in a climate of opinion that says there is no ‘we’, democratic deliberation can be explained away by Public Choice analyses, and politics is just a cynical exercise in rent-seeking. That anti-democratic cynicism is basically a recipe for inducing intelligent people to cede the political field to the Donald Trumps of the world.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I didn’t mean to imply that the security concerns aren’t serious. I simply meant (i) to emphasize that they need to be considered in the context of the humanitarian crisis from which these people are fleeing, and (ii) we should not be talking about them in terms of “Muslims” as such, but in terms of Islamists and actual or potential terrorists (where no simple inference of the form “Muslim, therefore Islamist/terrorist” should be admissible). I agree with everything you say here, at least broadly, although I’m not sure what form of democratic deliberation can really solve the problem, nor do I have any practical ideas about how to address it (there’s a reason I’m an intellectual historian and not a politician).


        • We’re basically agreeing then. I suspect Matt agrees with (ii) as well, and was just writing elliptically.

          On democratic deliberation, I was a little elliptical myself: I don’t so much mean that democratic deliberation is needed to solve the problem–in the sense that the details of the solution would emerge from deliberation–but that democratic ratification of any solution is a necessary condition of successful implementation. The technical details of the solution are best left to experts.

          In other words, in order to liberalize a country’s asylum policies, there has to be a consensus within the country that the policies urgently need liberalization. And that consensus can only be built democratically. It’s not enough for the Secretary of State timidly to stand up and say, “Yes, this is a problem, so let’s take pro forma steps toward a pro forma solution.” We need politicians who stand up and say, “This is a problem that needs solution and will require the assumption of some risks. Let’s talk about that as a prologue to doing something about it.” And you need citizens who will at least respond to that.

          In a nation politically dominated by the likes of Donald Trump, that’s bound to sound utopian. Of course at some level, maybe it is utopian. But democracy is the only viable route to political change. It’s also the only real indicator of popular support for government policies. Where democracy is broken, we have to fix it. We don’t have a better choice.

          What I find disturbing about libertarian politics is the combination one finds among libertarians of strident support for wildly radical political goals (e.g., “Open Borders” in the absolutely literal sense) and scornful denigration of all forms of democratic gradualism. The result becomes: “Let’s demand the sky but make it impossible to accomplish anything in reality, then attack everyone who refuses to join us in demanding the sky.” The recent attacks on Bernie Sanders were a classic case of this. Either he accepts a conception of Open Borders that leads to anarchy–or he’s evil. Either you accept an anarchist interpretation of Open Borders, or…you’re a murderer.

          I’m in favor of the liberalization of the immigration/asylum laws, I’m not a socialist, and I get as bored by participatory democracy as the next guy. But I can’t help shaking my head at stuff like this.


  4. Derrick,

    To answer your first question, the refugee crisis has been big news here (as your link from The New York Times suggests), but coverage has focused on what’s perceived as the European (and to some extent Australian) failure to take in a sufficient number of refugees, or to do so properly. There’s been some news coverage about how few refugees are being let into the United States, but very little debate about making refugees a higher priority. Apparently, Americans would rather discuss the exact nature of our military options against ISIS than the feasibility of allowing Syrian refugees into the US–even if we’re partly responsible (via the Iraq War) for having made them refugees in the first place.

    One irony apparently lost in the shuffle: during the 1930s and 1940s, Jews fleeing the Nazis were denied entry into the United States on both anti-Semitic and political grounds. The anti-Semitic grounds were transparent, but the political grounds had to do with the disproportionate number of leftists, socialists, and communists thought to exist among Jews, the idea being that if we let them into the country, we would facilitate left-wing subversion. It was thought self-evident that Jewish refugees ought to be directed to Mandate Palestine–Mandate Palestine being an obviously more hospitable place for European Jews than the United States. When the Palestinians resisted Jewish immigration on similar grounds, they were roundly condemned as a bunch of barbarians and bigots, as they still are.

    Fast-forward to 2015: The Syrian refugees are fleeing ISIS, a group often likened to the Nazis. They are denied entry into the United States on sectarian-political grounds. Meanwhile, we watch the struggles of the Europeans from afar and wonder why they can’t get it right. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.


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