How do we get people to care about migrants?

15 August 2023, 1443 EDT

Earlier this week, a boat carrying migrants fleeing Afghanistan sank in the English Channel, killing six. Earlier this month, 41 died after a ship sailing from Tunisia sank near Italy. There are many more examples of such tragedies I could point to, and, sadly, there will be many more in the future.

These are not acts of God, like hurricanes or earthquakes. They are created, both through the conflict and repression producing the crises and the inaction of those who could protect these people. Long-serving Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte recently announced he would leave politics after his government collapsed. Disagreements over refugee policy, with Rutte adopting a hard-line to outflank right-wing opponents, seems to be the reason. The Greek coast guard was aware of the impending disaster facing the Adriana, a boat carrying refugees from North Africa; the boat eventually sank, killing over 600. The conservative UK government–when it’s not quashing Scottish autonomy–is trying to pay Rwanda to take in migrants.

This is not a tenable situation, in terms of both morality and international stability. The usual approach is to shame governments that refuse to help. Considering that the US state of Texas is currently using buoys and razor wire to block migrants at the border with Mexico, shame doesn’t seem very effective. Can IR literature tell us what would work?

“Norms matter” isn’t enough…

Constructivism, and the research it has inspired, has done a lot to demonstrate the importance of values in international relations. It demonstrates that norms affect state decisions, even on security matters. It points to the ability of states to persuade others to change their behavior. It shows that transnational advocacy groups can affect foreign policy.

What has always bugged me about constructivism, however, is what it says about cases where norms and values don’t matter: not much. When states are acting based on narrow self-interest or actively harming others, why would they ever start acting morally?

I worry we’re never going to persuade enough people that protecting migrants is important to make a difference.

There is some work on this. Finnemore and Sikkink talked about the importance of norm emergence and cascades to effect political change. Emergence comes from “norm entrepreneurs” who persuade others to adopt their new beliefs. Busby highlighted the importance of persuading institutional gatekeepers.

This still leaves a lot of questions when applying it to migrant crises. Who is the proper norm entrepreneur? How do we persuade people to care about migrants?

I know there are more studies on this issue, from both IR and social movements literature. Please feel free to add them in the comments. But I worry we’re never going to persuade enough people that protecting migrants is important to make a difference.

…because interests matter more

So we may have to look elsewhere for insights.

Neoliberal IR theory is a good place to start. These scholars accept that states are self-interested, but study the ways that states have created international organizations and legal regimes to coordinate this self-interest and overcome shared problems. They also argue that domestic publics can push states to cooperate.

I’m sure most of the Duck audience read Keohane’s After Hegemony in grad school (or maybe you’re reading it now), or Milner’s work on domestic politics. These studies led to numerous other studies on international organizations, law and cooperation; I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on neoliberalism in IR, but again feel free to chime in in the comments.

A good starting point is being realistic about the world we’re in.

And as with constructivism, there is a lot of work inspired by neoliberalism’s rational approach. Some of this explains how rational self-interest grants the UN Security Council legitimacy. Other work applies this to the design of climate change regimes. Some looks specifically at refugees, finding that in an experimental setting domestic publics are likely to punish their leaders when they turn away refugees in contravention of international law (although we haven’t seen much real-world evidence of this).

Redefining and coordinating interests

The trick, then is to figure out how to leverage state interests to help migrants.

One option is to redefine narrow state self-interest and demonstrate the value of taking in migrants. The UN’s International Organization for Migration has done some work on this. I also wrote a report for the Center for American Progress making some of these points, albeit in a Middle Eastern context.

The other option is to coordinate international interests. This may seem especially tricky since states don’t seem to have any interest in working together on this issue. However, the attempted UK deal with Rwanda–and the similar deal between the EU and Turkey, in which the former paid the latter to keep Syrian refugees from crossing into Greece–suggest states at least recognize the need for international coordination. They also recognize what the Norwegian Refugee Council has pointed out, that only a few countries are responsible for caring for the vast majority of migrants.

I don’t have the answer, and can’t work one out in a blog post. One possibility would be to build off of the Global Compact for Migration. But I think a good starting point is being realistic about the world we’re in. The chance of a global movement in defense of refugees is pretty slim. With enough pressure, however, states may realize they’re better off working together to help migrants instead of hoping someone else fixes the problem.