Yesterday I saw an article about a ship in the Mediterranean Ocean that picked up 500 refugees from a boat. Western nations have increasingly picked up refugees from dilapidated boats and other watercrafts since 2015. We obviously don’t want them to drown, do we? Obviously, this is the ethical approach to the situation. The refugees after being saved move on to the European mainland and move on to their destination country. The problem with this approach is that it encourages poor people from Africa, the Middle East and Asia to make the dangerous journey across the ocean on boats of questionable quality and safety. By spending lots of resources on saving people we encourage more to make the trip. The cost/benefit analysis for the migrants changes. Since we can never guarantee that we can save all from drowning an increase will result in more deaths by drowning.
In Europe emotions are likely to cloud our judgment when we discuss the European migrant crisis. It hits too close to home. I therefore want to compare the situation here with the situation in North Korea. North Korea as is well known is essentially a huge outdoor prison. They have extremely limited freedoms and rights. Several hundred thousand people are imprisoned in prison camps with deplorable conditions. There is absolutely no free speech or rights to participate in government outside of narrowly approved ways. Poverty is widespread, famine is normal and life in general is awful. First world nations have for a long time sent aid in the form of food and medicine to North Korea. Is this a moral thing to do? The situation for the people was shitty before our intervention and it remains to afterwards. The oppressive political regime survives. The Western aid offsets the costs from the North Korean regime. They are then free to spend the money on their military. Western food aid is therefore paying part of the costs of the nuclear and missile program.
Now obviously if we didn’t ship in tonnes of food, many poor innocent men, women and children would starve to death. It goes without saying that this is not a desired outcome. But we must remember that this state of affairs is also present with aid. People have starved to death, are starving right now and more will starve in the future. That is the nature of the totalitarian system in the North. The difference is that if we didn’t provide aid, they would have less money to spend on their military and perhaps the likelihood of the regime being overthrown would increase.
Back to Europe. If European nations ignored the boats underway and didn’t intervene the risks of crossing would be higher. We live in a connected internet-enabled world, so this information would get back to the people of Africa and the Middle East. They would have less incentive to make the perilous journey. Some have even argued for attacks upon the vessels used by people smugglers to carry refugees. This would be an even greater deterrent. We must at the same time remember nuances to the story seldom mentioned in the press. People smugglers are criminals, links have been found to the Italian Mafia. The term “refugee” is often inaccurate. Most are economic migrants coming for the generous welfare found in Europe. This is made clear by their refusal to follow proper procedure and stay in the first safe country they enter. They make a serious effort to get to the generous welfare nations of Sweden and Germany. Also, who will rebuild their war-torn and impoverished nations if the smart and resource-rich all leave? They are the first to understand the dangers and lack of opportunity and home and the ones with the means to do something about it. Is it moral for Europe to deny the poor people who remain an opportunity for a better future? That is one of the consequences of accepting so-called refugees by the thousands.
To sum up, what at first sight appears to be the clear-cut moral response is not always as cut-and-dry as it appears. Aid allows the underlying conditions to continue and prolongs the negative situation.