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How Europe’s ‘Headless Hearts’ Made Refugee Crisis Worse

But 'northern donors' can work with 'southern hosts' to help fix it.
somali refugees

Refuge: Rethinking Refugee Policy in a Changing World, Alexander Betts & Paul Collier, Oxford University Press, 288 pages.

To fully grasp the confusion gripping Europe over the refugee crisis, consider recent messages from the Catholic Church. Pope Francis repeatedly chastises the hardening European heart to refugees and migrants. Tougher enforcement, according to an August Vatican statement, should be shunned, as states must “always prioritize personal safety over national security.” But progressive Cardinal Reinhard Marx called last year for “a reduction in the number of refugees,” saying that Germany cannot “take all the world’s needy.” France’s premier Catholic political philosopher, Pierre Manent, warns “we invite catastrophe when we confuse the obligation to rescue a person who is drowning with that person’s right to become a citizen of our country. We invite catastrophe when, in the name of charity or mercy, we require old Christian nations to open their borders to all who wish to enter.”

Similar confusion plagues all European leadership, from Angela Merkel to Sweden’s political class. But can it be overcome? For Europe must wrestle with competing moral goods whose foundational nature appear to make them unworthy of the tradeoffs inherent to political deliberation. Could two thorough members of the establishment transcend this stalemate? Two Oxford economists, Alexander Betts and the more widely known Paul Collier, have perhaps found a breakthrough in aiding the world’s 21 million refugees and 65 million displaced persons.

Without imbuing the academy’s many theories of Western guilt, the authors of Refuge successfully convey the global North’s partial responsibility for the incoherence of the modern refugee regime. Prior to the 1980s, most refugees in developing countries—Mexico, Tanzania, and Zambia—were not confined to camps but pursued genuine integration into host societies. But over that decade, neoliberal “reforms” imposed by the IMF and World Bank damaged poor nations, provoking wariness towards refugees. Isolated camps, exclusion within urban cities, and restrictions on work and movement became standard.

Likewise, commentators often present the 2015 European refugee crisis—and presumably future “waves”—as inescapable results of ethnic violence, state decay, and poverty. But the authors imagine an alternative history. Had ambitious development programs supported haven countries bordering Syria, Europe might have proven less attractive to refugees finding work and dignity closer to home. Instead, overall indifference fatally marked the early years of the Syrian Civil War. Nor does Refuge spare the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and an accompanying “global humanitarian industry.” Imitating Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s denouncement of the Great Society bureaucracy, the authors lament aid delivery premised on “care and maintenance,” forcing refugees into “the role of victimhood.” Jordan’s Arzaq, a much publicized UNHCR camp, is described in the spirit of Jane Jacobs as a “well-intentioned, high modernist catastrophe,” even a “vision of hell.”

Collier and Betts build a substantive framework of moral responsibility to the displaced. But their plight does not establish an inalienable right to “unrestricted global mobility or the ability to choose a destination country.” Our duty is rescue from the immediate danger of violence and extreme destitution and to guarantee opportunities for work, autonomy, and community alongside the eventual hope of return. Refuge shows no patience for demands for fluid, weak borders. Such Platonic cities in speech neglect the achievement and fragility of nation-states, the only model yet discovered for “allocating rights and duties,” solving collective action problems, and constructing larger expressions of solidarity in the welfare state.  Collier and Betts’ concept of rescue offer narrow but defined contours of moral duty to Western publics, capable of inspiring more substantial commitments than vacuous calls for global citizenship.

Most delightfully, Refuge provides deliverance to readers exhausted by endless tributes to Angela Merkel as the saving rock of liberal democracy. We instead find less “an angel of mercy” than a politician acting with a “headless heart.” Merkel’s 2015 “welcome” to Syrians and repudiation of the Dublin Agreement sparked a “huge ensuing expansion in the people-smuggling business,” leading to the deaths of thousands at sea. The scale of arrivals blurred the boundary between refugee and migrant, creating a sense of powerlessness in European publics and critically tilting the Brexit vote for Leave.

Furthermore, compassion and its political capital are not unlimited assets. Through her choice, Merkel upended all continental politics, draining critical energy and resources away from sustainable efforts to supporting the 90 percent of displaced Syrians outside Europe. Interestingly, Collier and Betts also fear a crippling “brain drain” for the Levant. Germany did not receive a random sample of Syrian refugees: in fact, the majority were young, middle class, educated men. By absorbing “around half of all Syrians with a university education,” Europe deprived Syria—and its surrounding diaspora—of pivotal human capital for rebuilding.

What then is an alternative for the world’s displaced? Flowing from a commitment to rescue rather than distribution of Western living standards and citizenship, Refuge doesn’t regard resettlement in Europe as a high priority. As the authors never cease to point out, there is a ratio “of about $135 spent on a refugee in the developed world to every $1 spent on a refugee in the developing world.” As National Review’s Reihan Salam wrote in June 2016, Norway’s per-capita yearly spending on one refugee—$126,000—“could support as many as 26 Syrian refugees annually” in Jordan. Sweden manifested this paradox in 2015, when it cut foreign aid by half due to the strain of new migrants.

Refuge’s ambition is a union of “Northern donors and Southern hosts.” Collier and Betts argue for greater attention on economic empowerment within low-income haven countries—Lebanon, South Africa, Ethiopia, Jordan, and Turkey—where the overwhelming majority of refugees are and will stay. Much of it only requires scrapping the barriers restricting the ambitions of refugees for work, entrepreneurship, and institution building, impulses the authors movingly capture from site visits. Turkey’s remarkable economic growth was built on manufacturing; ambitious Western governments and companies should likewise aim to replicate this achievement through refugee labor in Jordan and Lebanon.

Will already fragile states ever view incoming refugees outside of a competitive eye? With a rich historical lens, Collier and Betts find modest reasons for optimism from Uganda, interwar Greece, and Central America at the conclusion of the Cold War. Perhaps the authors’ economics background makes them too enamored by the powers of commerce to spread goodwill. Nevertheless, economic growth and its image of the refugee—as bearer of human capital, not victim—is the only hope. Moralism in international law and New York Times editorials will wear thin.

Refuge sketches an attractive policy vision but the reader must wonder if any political movement will seize it. Contemporary populists have gone beyond a desirable agenda for retreat from the excesses of hyperglobalization. Will the National Front and Alternative for Germany sign on to greater free trade with haven countries or more generous aid programs? Neoconservative and Wilsonian pretensions in Washington may cripple cautious attempts at investment in post-conflict states like Syria, whose regimes will not imitate Denmark (or even present Bosnia) any time soon. Can the Western Left relinquish the aphrodisiac of indefinitely “welcoming the stranger”? As arguments for open borders populate Vox and The Economist, has the opportunity to virtue-signal and escape “provincial” loyalties to specific political and cultural communities proved irresistible? Our bankrupt status quo presents openings for political creativity, but contemporary intellectual banality may leave us trapped in “the politics of the ostrich.”

Despite the corrosive, twin fanaticism of “the Davos Man” and “the deplorables,” both cosmopolitanism and nationalism reflect enduring needs within the city of man. In their magisterial reflection, Collier and Betts may save Europe from an unrelenting confrontation between these philosophies. Friends of the nation-state and opponents of mass immigration have exposed the unrealistic sophistry of much first-world humanitarianism. But the refugees trapped in the degrading camps of Dadaab and Za’atari, or the slums of Beirut and Istanbul, still cry out for justice. Responsible populists and sovereigntists can find in Refuge a reconciliation of their moral duties to the particular—defined, rooted communities and nations—and the universal, or the inescapable dignity of every human person. Such twin imperatives account for the greatness of the West, and perhaps only the Niebuhrian moral realism of Refuge can free it from both chauvinists and utopians.     

David Jimenez, a recent graduate of Bowdoin College and Fulbright Scholar in Romania, works on campus outreach at a Washington think-tank.