Asylum: Quotas & ranking applicants

(Part 2 of 2, follows 'Asylum, Humanity, & Fairness' )

Although the starting point for international allocation of refugees is a fair geographic distribution , there are several arguments for going further. Even where we don’t accept an argument as obliging us to accept more refugees, it may be a factor in whom we should choose.

The main five reasons cited for not limiting help to a ‘geographically fair’ proportion are:

A)   Those countries that have caused displacement by their foreign policies should be the ones that pick up the pieces.

B)  Rich nations should do more than poor nations.

C)  Refugees with family connections to the UK should be admitted, whatever the numbers

D)  Refugees that speak English should be allowed to settle in English speaking countries, particularly where they speak English due to past imperial adventures by the UK.

E)  As a Christian country, we should particularly give sanctuary to Christians fleeing religious persecution.

A. Assuming responsibility for the fallout of our foreign policies

Holding countries accountable for the fallout of their foreign policy seems reasonable, particularly where that policy has immediately caused displacement.  For example, the UK/NATO involvement in the war in Syria.  For context most refugees come from Syria, Ukraine, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Rakhine state in Burma.

But what about where our policy (straight lines on maps creating countries without geographic or ethnic cohesion) has merely set the stage for other people to ‘create their own nightmare’? When Indian independence was accompanied by Britain's reluctant accession to Jinnah’s request for partition, should we have offered asylum to Sikhs, Christians, and Hindus in the new Islamic Republic of Pakistan?  Should we be responsible indefinitely for refugees created by the conflicts between Christian and Moslem factions in Nigeria? Should we offer automatic refuge to Australian Aboriginals whose country we took over, and who are now, as a result, a minority in their own land, a minority that has oft faced great discrimination even down to children being stolen to be raised by white adoptive parents. Should we be offering refuge to (what remains of) the Sioux, the Dakota & the Apache, whose many agreements & treaties with European settlers were always broken by those settlers (who became US government)?

Luckily, many of these examples are rendered academic.  The Aborigonals, and 4 million people of the American Indian tribes seem to prefer to stay in their home countries.  But they would have a very strong claim if we felt obliged to give refuge to those who are victims of our foreign policy.  I appreciate some will argue that, absent our settlement, the tribes would own more land, while not necessarily being better off, but such conjecture about counterfactual conditionals is little more than a scaled up version of a kidnapper trying to argue that, but for the kidnapping, their victim might have been run over by a bus.

Despite Britain’s generally positive contribution to the world, there are elements that shame us.  Where they now give rise to refugees, it is hard to see why we should not step to the front of the queue to help.

The maxim that “It’s better to be an enemy of Britain than a friend: a friend can only be sold, but an enemy can only be bought.” is one I would like to see  disproved at every level.  We must act promptly to make amends for cases where, in the past, we have let friends down.  Most obviously the interpreters from the Iraq and Afghan wars.  Failure to look after them is not only wrong, but deeply stupid: who will put their lives on the line to help British forces if we then abandon them?

My father, who was in Slim’s 14th Army, spoke warmly of the Karen and Kachin hill tribes in Burma who fought with the allies during WW2.  They were promised independence, but, without a corridor to the sea, which we did not give them, their landlocked areas were not viable and were subsumed into an independent Burma run from Rangoon by despots who took a Darth Vader approach to rebel enclaves.  Although it is the Rohingya that get most international attention, the Karen and Kachin are particularly deserving of our help.

It is tempting to think we could undo some of the ‘straight lines on maps’ problems created during decolonization. If we could, the obligation to do so would be strong.  A map of Africa which had countries like those in Europe: numerous, with crinkly borders bounded by mountain ranges, rivers, and ethnic zones, seems like a glittering prize indeed: a sufficient condition for vastly reduced conflict.  Alas, thanks to Mr Blair & Mrs Clinton, it is apparent that the west’s ‘good intentions’ cannot be translated into military action that makes things on the ground better for the locals.  An Iraq better than under Saddam was not a high bar to clear, but we failed there.  Likewise, how could Libya not be improved by removing Gadaffi?  But his departure was accompanied by open air slave markets.  

B. Hospitality sharing based on wealth / ability to help

Rich nations are able to do much more, and can do so without taking funding from a local population that may be only just subsisting.  But should doing more mean taking in more refugees?  Monaco’s GDP is c$8.6 billion, which is just over 0.01% of the word GDP of $81 Trillion.  If it accepted 0.01% of the c30million refugees, that would mean taking in 3,000 people, adding more than 8% of its c37,000 population.     That’s the equivalent of the UK or France admitting over 5 million people, or the USA admitting 26 million people.  It is not a sustainable approach.  It is easy to argue that greater wealth should lead to proportionately greater funding to help refugees, but physically allocating refugees based on the income of the host nations?  Not so much.

Allocation based on the existing population of host nations? Countries that already have high population densities, would end up taking on a geographically disproportionate share, and thereby getting an even greater population density, that becomes the justification for a larger inflow next time, and so on in a self-reinforcing spiral. The approach also seems unfair as high population density is usually correlated with previous openness to immigration.  Monaco’s population density per sqkm, is 26,337, if it took in  4% more, they would have a 27,290 per sqkm density.  England would go from 434 to 451, France from 119 to 124, and Spain from 94 to 98.  Sharing the hospitality based on habitable land area (ie physical ability to accommodate) seems more sustainable, and fairer than sharing based on population.

C. Accepting those with family connections to the UK

Close family members are already able to come to the UK, whether or not they are refugees.  A refugee is given preference in various ways: Their family members do not need to be able to support the incomer without recourse to public funds.  For non-refugees even bringing in a spouse requires proof of sufficient income. And, the family connection can be more distant:  For non-refugees, even a first cousin, or an aunt/uncle may not qualify.

Admission is uncontroversial where there are living family members in the UK.  But what if someone knows the UK, and has visited before, but their relative here has died?  They still have a closer connection to the UK than most others.  Inasmuch as we are choosing which of the 30 million refugees to admit selecting those with even a distant family connection seems sensible. But that is because, with a hospitality sharing approach, we are going to admit a person anyway, and so are simply choosing between different applicants.

D. A red carpet for refugees that speak English?

As with the family connection issue, with a hospitality-sharing approach, where we are going to admit a particular number of people, choosing those that speak English over those that do not seems sensible.  They will be able to integrate more easily and, frankly, sending French speakers to England & English speakers to France, would make little sense.

The more interesting question is, if a disproportionately high proportion of refugees speak English (they do), does that mean that England (and/or the rest of the English speaking world) should admit more refugees than would otherwise be the case?  Some have suggested that such admissions would be part of the ‘payback’ for Britain’s imperial past spreading English language throughout the world.

The first point here is that for the other parts of the English-speaking world, like Canada and Australia, to be expected to admit a disproportionate number of refugees on a linguistic basis would be to compound the injury to the Aboriginals, Inuits, and Canadian Indians. We would be saying ‘because some English speakers took over your land a few hundred years ago, they are now going to bring in yet more English speakers to make you an even smaller minority”.

The claim that England should admit a disproportionate number of refugees, because their speaking English is due to our past colonialism seems weak.

In 1939 French was the lingua franca (international language), of science, and of diplomacy.  Paris, the city of lights, had Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani, Chagal, rather outshining our Henry Moore & Barbara Hepworth.  Their popular music was the best in the world: even in England we still listen to Edith Piaf, Charles Trenet, Maurice Chevalier, Yves Montand, and Josephine Baker, while Noel Coward is the only home grown 1930s artist still played at parties (or, at all, other than as a curiosity). London’s glamorous night club was the Café de Paris. With the onset of WW2, Britain stopped expanding its empire, so, to ascribe to empire the rise of English, at the expense of French, seems far fetched.

The war did have an impact.  The Allied forces were anglophone, scientific projects, not only at Los Alamos, were thenceforth mostly conducted in English. Artists fled Paris.  New York became the centre of the art world (America combining the wealth to pay for art, and a wartime social scene without blackouts or bombings).

But the ascendency of English was not primarily down to war.  It was powered by the international success of Hollywood since the end of WW1, Pop/Rock from Elvis to Tailor Swift, MTV, the internet, and video on demand (go to a good hotel in formerly French Vietnam, and the TV will likely have Netflix and Amazon Prime buttons on the remote). That, and the network effects of language making it ever more logical to learn the global language.  In countries that the Britain never administered, children are taught English at school, or learn at home using Dualingo on their smartphones.

Tourism is a growth industry, and it is to cater for Australians that the   Indonesians of Bali (formerly part of the Dutch East Indies) learn English.  To cater for the Americans, the Mexicans & central Americans depart from Spanish.   In the old parts of the Roman empire now in Albania, they speak Italian (not for imperial reasons, but because Italy is only a few miles across the Ionian & Adriatic seas), and English (because it is spoken not only by the Brits, but also, as a second language, by many Germans and other vacationing Europeans).  And in the (formerly Spanish) Philippines, many learn English in order to get Nursing and other jobs in the USA, Australia, and UK.

Arguing that refugees, wherever they are, if they speak English, should be able to choose the UK as their place of sanctuary, is to say that the success of the Beatles and Rolling Stones obliges us to give a home to their fans.  It would also drastically boost the value of a Smartphone with a Dualingo subscription in any conflict zone.  The case for doing this seems weak.  If the approach were adopted, one could imagine bizzare cultural missions to conflict zones, with France reversing its historic zealously evangelical approach to the French language, and instead promoting English, while the British council distributed the works of Voltaire & Simenon and set up radio stations broadcasting French music.

E. As a Christian country, we should particularly give sanctuary to Christians fleeing religious persecution.

This is a very difficult area.  On the one hand, there is a strong fellow feeling for those being persecuted for their Christianity.  On the other, the severity of persecution seems to trump its cause. Would we not have greater duty to a Jewish person whose faith means that their windows are being broken, & their business expropriated, than to a Christian who is (‘only’) a slightly second class citizen & subject to Jizya?

When we look at Christians being persecuted, and when we look at other groups that attract particular sympathy (perhaps Tibetan Buddhists, Sri Lancan Tamils, Middle Eastern Jews, Pakistani Sikhs, Bangladeshi Jains), we are often minded to be more generous and understanding.  But, sadly, that generosity of spirit is most readily manifested when dealing with small numbers.  During the cold war, we gave sanctuary to Christians fleeing soviet Russia, if those brave souls managed to get past the Iron Curtain.  With the collapse of the USSR, when the Russian government stopped imprisoning its own people, the UK (and the rest of the West) suddenly became rather less welcoming.  When I was in Albania, the coast was dotted with structures that looked like pizza ovens, they were actually machine gun nests that the Enver Hoxha regime used to kill any citizens trying to escape across the water to Corfu.  When the regime fell, and the Albanian posts were unmanned, thousands of people set out to swim the 1.2km channel, only to encounter the Greek Navy whose ships fired on the swimmers.  This was an EU member, the birthplace of democracy, and of Classical civilization,  in 1991, shooting unarmed swimmers who, for years we (the west) had bombarded with the message that the west welcomed those that wanted to escape soviet communism and live in a free society.

The Greek killings of refugees in 1991 are a harsh reminder that even a ‘nice, civilized’ society can become barbaric. Exhortations to ‘be better’ or ‘do better’ are not enough, because, when people feel threatened, such reactions are part of our survival instinct.  ‘Don’t do that to survive’ is far less effective as advice than showing people that their survival is not at stake.  Persuading the population to see asylum seekers as individual human beings, like us (there, but for the grace of god, go we), is easier the more common ground we have with the asylum seekers, and is easier the more sympathetic the asylum seekers are.  Someone who spent decades working for Robert Mugabe as a torturer, mutilating members of rival tribes & supporters of political opponents, may have only taken the job because the alternative was being imprisoned & tortured himself, and may have then fled because he could not bear to continue, but accommodating 10,000 such former torturers carries risks, and is a much more difficult prospect to sell to the public, than accommodating a similar number of Tibetan monks,  Hong Kong democracy protestors fleeing China, or Nigerian Christian schoolgirls & their mothers escaping BokoHaram kidnappers.

Conclusion: Should we do more?

The reasons oft cited for ‘doing more’ are usually at least a compelling reason for giving priority within any quota. Giving weight to the factors that make a person’s acceptance & integration easier, will maximise the public appetite for supporting refugees, and reduce the chances of problems.  Once one accepts that not every meritorious case in the world can be solved by the UK, the question moves from “this is a meritorious case, should we deny help just because this is a trained solder with violent habits who is unlikely to adhere to our laws prohibiting violence?’  to ‘Of the many we might resettle, what weight, if any, should we give to the chances that the resettlement will be smooth & successful?’   There are those who say it is sexist and ageist to have a ‘women and children first’ approach, it may well be so, but it requires willful blindness to pretend that a woman (or most men), would have the same feelings about the prospect of walking down a street filled with resettled women and children, as they would have were the street filled with resettled battle hardened young men.

The whole question of having a quota, rather than admitting all refugees that are not a security risk, becomes moot once we move to seeing people as a potential asset, rather than a ‘burden’.  Or, arguably, when we fully see them all as people.  The route to such a perception is Madisen Pirie's micro-incrementalism.  And one of the main reasons we are so far from it is that the well intentioned have tried to base policy on what they believe people should think, rather than what they do think.   We must build a bridge from where we are to where we want to be, rather than pretending that we are already there, or that such building is pandering to, or rewarding, 'wrongthink'.  

Note on ‘Habitable’ land area excluded

We need to exclude the areas made, if not uninhabitable, then entirely unattractive due to conflict or natural disasters.  These tend to be the places that Refugees have left (Syria 185k sqkm, Ukraine 2.8m sqkm, Afghanistan 653k sqkm, South Sudan 644k sqkm, Rakhine state in Burma (Rohingya) 38k sqkm, DR Congo 2.3m sqkm, Sudan 1.9m sqkm, 638k sqkm, Somalia, Central African Republic 623k sqkm, Eritrea 118k sqkm).  For practical purposes, we should also exclude Russia 17.1m sqkm,  China+Tibet 9.6m sqkm, North Korea 120k sqkm, and Iran 1.6million sqkm.    That is almost 39 million sqkm. The figure considers each country’s whole land area.  If the global average of 57% of land being desert or too mountainous for habiation applied, then under 17million sqkm of habitable land is excluded by wars, natural disasters, and lack of openness to the world.  I am sticking with the full 39million sqkm to err on the side of pessimism.

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