Skip to content

Who should take the world’s refugees?

The debate on what we, and the rest of the world, should do about the forced displacement of 1 in 14 of the world’s population is increasingly polarised. Arguments become angry. This is at least partly because it’s difficult to have a reasoned discussion if you are unable to acknowledge other points of view than your own.

This article aims to lay out the various factors which influence people’s view, to try and encourage a clearer and less adversarial discussion.

  • More than 60 million people are displaced. Over 20 million have left not only their homes but their countries.
  • Many have no country to return to, because of active war.
  • Many have no home to return to because it’s been destroyed by human or ecological disaster, along with the infrastructure to rebuild it.
  • Many have no sustainable life to return to because their basic needs of cannot be met in their home for reasons beyond their control.
  • Many have no safe home to return to, because of the risk of violence from sectarian groups or the state itself, and lack of state protection of their human rights.
  • Many have no future to return to because their aspirations are greater than the opportunities their country can offer.
  • Nobody embarks on a dangerous journey with an uncertain outcome, unless they believe that the need to do that is big enough to risk their lives for.
  • Those who do so tend to be resourceful, resilient and committed to working towards a better future. They tend not to be people who never want to work or contribute.

Where do refugees come from?

This map shows the position at the end of 2014 but the proportions remain similar: the big flows are from countries where there is war, violence, and human rights abuse – often more than one of those three.


There’s an interesting interactive map of this on youtube, which gives more detail:

What forms our opinions of the refugee crisis?

Listening to the debate, whoever is doing the debating and wherever it occurs, I think there are essentially four threads of arguments which seem to rule opinion.

First: Humanitarian response versus fear of the stranger 

The humanitarian arguments for helping people out of terrible situations are straightforward and we all understand them. We all have some sense of responsibility for others, although the weight we give it varies with our personalities and life experiences, and with our perception of those who need help.

These views are opposed by our instinctive wariness of ‘the stranger.’:

  • Some don’t want the increased diversity immigration brings, feeling an innate need to preserve the national identity they have known. Analysis of the Brexit debate suggested that older people are more likely to weigh this view strongly.
  • People have differing perceptions of how many might come, and the degree to which this impacts their own prosperity. For some a sense of generosity is overwhelmed by the size of the problem.
  • There is an appeal to emotion, based on a mixture of nationalism and nostalgia, that feeds on a feeling that ‘it was better when it was just us.’

Second: concern about making things worse

The wish to respond in moral way is complicated by concern that a humanitarian response encourages more refugees to take more risks. The government used this argument to cancel the Dubs amendment, bringing in unaccompanied children.

This is countered by the view that those who become displaced would flee anyway because they are leaving impossible situations. There are already 50,000 unaccompanied children in Europe, we have taken only 200. Can taking 200 really make a significant difference to this flow? Couldn’t we take more?

Third: Economic arguments.

These look at the economic costs and benefit to host countries and to their countries of origin, of the movement of bright and resourceful people.

For the new country:

The long term benefits of admitting a young, resourceful population are broadly accepted to be economically positive. More working people means a bigger economy, so there is more for us all.

A few people argue that as more people come in an economy will not grow  – but there seems to be no evidence to support this view. They point out that refugees initially need support, in terms of health and social care and, perhaps, retraining, so there is a short term cost before the long term benefit.

How big is the short term cost? Will the long term gain affect you personally?  It’s hard to find a quality analysis of what taking in large numbers of refugees means for us. A 2012 study by the Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford, ‘Guidelines for Assessing the Impacts and Costs of Forced Displacement’ looks at economic and financial consequences of development and humanitarian assistance. sme338-impac-report_v8

For the country left behind

If the brightest and most able drain away does that make the home country even less attractive for those that remain, draining the chance of recovery and growth? If we help the displaced rather than forcing them home are we doing a bad thing?

But if enough refugees become educated, work hard and share their earned wealth or expertise with the country back home, that country may also benefits and grows.

And when a country is at war, starving, or fails to respect its citizens’ basic human rights, how much can the brightest and most able contribute anyway?

Fourth: Practical arguments.

There are already twenty million displaced people knocking at the doors of developed countries. The practical argument says if we reject them they won’t go away.  Doing nothing is not an option as we are already doing something:

The cost argument says it’s not our problem – but Europe is already paying to support them through an EU programme called Madad which supports refugees already in Europe.


What about economic migrants?

Asylum and immigration law make a distinction between those who cannot go home because they have no safe place to go to thanks to war or persecution, and those who cannot go home because they cannot succeed there economically.

Is this a binary distinction? Economic migrants are still seeking human rights which are denied them at home. These emphasise the right to education and clean water, rather than the right not to be tortured or enslaved – but they are still human rights.


The arguments in favour of taking refugees:

  • They increase our diversity and therefore our resilience as a population
  • Change is uncomfortable but often productive.
  • New immigrants increase our skill base
  • Young immigrants give back more than they take, providing a younger working population base for our ageing country
  • Increased numbers of working people they are a stimulus to economic growth – working, spending, creating, consuming. Their benefits to us will be greater than their costs, particularly in the long term.
  • Who are we to deny others their human rights and freedoms? Why should we turn away someone who wants to be educated, to return him to a country where he cannot? Can we sacrifice those individuals for the greater good?
  • Giving aid might be a solution if we could give enough and achieve what we hope. But it has never been enough, and it never achieves what we hope. We offer more effective help by offering access to education and opportunity here.
  • The refugees have to go somewhere. They can’t or won’t go home, as they do not have a home if we define it as a safe place to live in which human rights are observed.

The arguments against taking refugees:

  • Adding to our diversity challenges our view of who ‘we’ are.
  • Change is uncomfortable – we like what we have.
  • New immigrants take economic benefits before they start to put them back in. It’s a transient effect but we live with short term politics.
  • If all 60 million displaced people are found homes in the west, will we drive more migration, exploitation and misery?  How much?
  • We choose to give the human rights and freedoms of others less priority if they impact on ours.
  • If we allow all the best, most resourceful people to leave their countries, how will their countries recover? We should give aid to their countries instead.
  • They have to go somewhere else.

This is where I stand:

I stand for taking more refugees. Many more.

  • I believe that the arguments support them bringing cultural and economic wealth to all of us. I believe we could support vast numbers as our ageing population could be rebalanced.
  • I believe the moral and humanitarian grounds are vastly compelling.
  • I accept that being welcoming to those already displaced may cause others to travel,  as the risks and benefits they are weighing up will push more to think it’s worth the risk – but I don’t believe that’s a morally justifiable moral for leaving them stranded or forcing them home (where evidence suggests that many simply restart the journey). I also believe the numbers driven to move will tail off in time.
  • I believe the increase in diversity is beneficial for us as people. Like many UK residents I have moved from an all-white rural childhood to the cultural diversity of life in a city where every other person differs in ethnicity, language or both from me. My experience has been that diversity is comfortable, fun and interesting and it expands your view of the world.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: