Are forced migration crises moral or institutional?

17 November 2023, 0907 EST

Forced migration–the movement of people for reasons beyond their control–has become a global crisis. According to both the UNHCR and the Norwegian Refugee Council, over 100 million people were displaced by the end of 2022, a 19 million increase over 2021.

There are two sides to this crisis. One is the push factors: the conditions leading individuals to flee. These include conflict, repression, gang violence, climate change, and economic distress. The other is how migrants’ hoped-for destinations receive them. More often than not, receiving countries make it difficult for migrants to reach their territory. This leads to repeated horrific incidents of migrant deaths, from the Mediterranean to the Rio Grande.

Considering the fact that 3/4 of forced migrants come from just six countries, efforts to improving their conditions could ease the crisis. However, many of these countries are experiencing intractable conflicts, which would be difficult to resolve in the short-term. So a better solution would be to find a way to get receiving states to accept refugees.

chart showing the increase in displacement over time

c/o the UNHCR

A common approach is normative: point out the moral imperative of caring for our neighbors. But a recent article in The Economist suggested a different approach: improving receiving state institutions.

Why don’t states accept migrants?

There are a few different proposed reasons for why states reject migrants.

One is moral. People don’t accept migrants because they don’t care enough. In more academic terms, they have not internalized international norms of humanitarianism, or there are clashing norms preventing migrant acceptance. For example, Weiner argued these clashing norms give rise to “dilemmas” for states trying to adjudicate migration crises.

Other moral explanations focus on racism. That is, people refuse to help migrants who are seen as “the Other.” Abbas discussed the way that fears of terrorism led people in Europe to view Syrian refugees as a security threat. Achiume has claimed a “structural xenophobic discrimination” drives refugee policies. And some claim Ukrainian refugees are more accepted in Europe than Syrians due to cultural differences.

Some argue a “smarter set of tools” is the best way to “restore public faith” in migration.

Others have looked at institutional issues to explain migrant rejection, however. Some of this is domestic: in a psychological study of Australians, Louis et al found that concerns about “procedural and distributive fairness” affected attitudes towards migrants. Others look at international governance: Barnett discussed the history of international refugee law and the need for improved global regimes. I also pointed to an international institutional explanation for the limits of advocacy for forced migrants.

The institutional solution

An article in a recent Economist issue waded into this debate. The article discusses the growing numbers of migrants and the tension between Western state reluctance to accept them and need to diversify and revivify their labor markets. The magazine points to a few issues leading to this, such as the vast number of migrants claiming asylum coupled with the insufficiency of asylum processing procedures, and limited efforts to establish organized “labour-migration schemes.” One overarching issue is that labor migration–voluntary migration in the search for well-paying jobs–is often “channeled through asylum systems.”

I worry hatred and fear will trump technocratic solutions.

The Economist argues that “failing to adjudicate properly between claimants undermines public support for all forms of migration.” It continues that to state “well-resourced asylum systems are needed alongside tailored labour-migration schemes” to changes the incentives of migrants and decrease receiving country frustration. The magazine is skeptical that this is enough to solve all crises, quoting migration expert Victoria Rietig. But it argues that “muddling through with a smarter set of tools is the most practical bet” to restore “public faith in asylum systems.”

Will this work?

This is alluring. We could solve this horrible crisis and prevent future migrant deaths without having to persuade vast swathes of Westerners to care more. All we need to do is invest in our government apparatus handling migrants, reducing frustration over their presence, and tensions would go away. This doesn’t even require a grand international regime; it can be accomplished by domestic state policies.

I’m wary of putting too much hope in these technocratic solutions, however. One reason is that you still must persuade people to spend more money on the issue; this can be attacked as giving taxpayer money to foreigners. A way around that could be to frame it or combine it with border security, as Democrats in the United States have attempted.

So I’m not sure. There is a good dissertation to be written here (and if it’s already been done please tell me) studying the varying effectiveness of asylum processing procedures and resulting social attitudes towards migrants. I worry hatred and fear will trump technocratic solutions, though.