Do European States Have a Moral Duty to Accept Syrian Refugees?

by Benjamin Studebaker

Europe is in the grip of an important ethical debate concerning the Syrian refugee crisis. 205,000 refugees have entered Greece this year. 69% are Syrian, 18% are Afghan, and the remainder are predominately Iraqi or Somali. Given Greece’s economic difficulties, many of these refugees move on to other European countries. Thousands attempt to cross into the UK from France every year at Calais. Should Europe accept these refugees? Let’s think about this.

Before we begin, let’s bear in mind just how serious this issue is. If Europe does not accept these refugees, they might be killed in their countries of origin or die attempting to enter Europe through extra-legal means. Boats can sink, and when that happens, dead children can and will wash up on shore:

At the same time, it’s also important to bear in mind that in theory, if a country accepts too many new immigrants too quickly, it can exceed its own supply of housing, food, and water and push itself into humanitarian crisis. For this reason, there are theoretical limits to the duties states have to foreign refugees. During the 4th century, tens of thousands of displaced Goths requested asylum in the Roman Empire, fleeing the Huns. Emperor Valens permitted this and actively helped the Goths to cross into the Roman Empire. It quickly turned into a logistical nightmare–the Romans were unable to feed the Goths or quickly find them lands to settle, and a horrible nightmare scenario unfolded in which the Goths had to sell their children and young women into slavery in exchange for dog meat. Eventually the Goths revolted, and defeated the Romans in the Battle of Adrianople. The Emperor himself was killed in the battle, and the entire province of Thrace was plundered or forced to pay tribute to the Goths. Eventually the Romans pushed the Goths back, but the province and the empire as a whole never fully recovered, both in material prosperity and in reputation. 28 years later, the Goths sacked Rome. The History Channel did a great documentary on the whole thing:

A single refugee family could be absorbed very easily. The entire population of Syria could not be absorbed easily at all. The number of refugees we are talking about lies somewhere between these two extremes. So the question is whether or not these refugees would place an undue strain on the infrastructure and logistical systems that keep Europe fed and functioning. If Europe can handle the immediate influx, it’s highly likely that these refugees would contribute substantively and positively to the European economy. The Americans have done significant research on the economic effects of immigrants, and they conclude that even poor and low skilled immigrants are generally net positives for government revenue–they contribute more in taxes than they consume in benefits:

They’re also significantly less likely to commit crimes than native born citizens:

For these reasons, it is generally a good thing to permit people to enter your country, provided your infrastructure and logistical systems can handle the load. In these respects many of the European countries have things a bit harder than the US. While both the US and the EU can feed the refugees, the US has low population density and plentiful housing relative to Europe:

As a result, some European countries suffer from chronic housing shortages that price young and poor people out of the market and push down their living standards. The UK is a prime example of this–it needs to build 250,000 homes a year to keep up with population growth, but presently manages less than 150,000:

This is unsustainable, and eventually the UK will have to relax its very strict planning laws, likely either permitting the construction of more high rise buildings or permitting further expansion into the greenbelts. In the meantime, the housing shortage makes it harder for the UK to take refugees without further burdening its extant population, leading to xenophobic tensions. However, many European countries’ are not in the UK’s situation. Indeed, many of them have shrinking populations:

The pink countries are actually seeing the load on their infrastructure decrease every year. This means that they could take on refugees without straining housing.  Germany’s population is 1.7 million smaller than it was in 2003:

Germany population

This is why it makes more sense for countries like Germany to take refugees than it does for countries like Britain. Indeed, this is what is happening–Germany will take 800,000 asylum seekers this year in an effort to boost its own shrinking population and workforce. But while it makes sense for Germany to take many more refugees than Britain, the UK still takes far fewer than it could. Prime Minister David Cameron is promising to only take 20,000, a pitiful figure.

It’s important to remember that these people are potentially economically quite productive. If a country can accommodate refugees, it should, and if it can’t, it should invest in its infrastructure until it can. Most western countries currently suffer from weak aggregate demand. Refugees can theoretically work, and even if countries don’t put them to work, they have to buy things. This means increased revenues for businesses and increased VAT revenue. All of this stimulates the economy and potentially contributes to higher living standards for the extant population.

What countries like Britain need is a dramatic increase in infrastructure spending to accommodate their growing populations. Governments have been unrealistic about the amount of housing, public transport, and other infrastructure spending that will be required if European citizens are going to avoid seeing their living standards fall over the next century. Governments need to make it easier for the private sector to build homes and they need to fund more public housing and transport infrastructure themselves. In the meantime, governments should take as many immigrants and refugees as they can without exhausting their housing supplies. This will mean that in the short-term, countries like Germany will take many more refugees than countries like Britain, but countries like Britain should be trying to take as many as they can. Leaders like David Cameron have been unnecessarily and wrongfully refusing to take refugees that could and should be accommodated, not merely for the benefit of those refugees but for the benefit of the British economy. This will further strain Britain’s housing supply, but in so doing it will force this government or the next government to come to terms with the seriousness of the housing shortage and with the extent to which Britain’s remaining infrastructure is woefully outdated. Eventually, governments will be forced to respond with vast transformative investments in housing and infrastructure that will shape what Europe is to become in the next hundred years. We can only hope that they will be sufficiently ambitious.