By Andrew L. Urban
Millions of people are taking life theatening journeys to seek new lives in the West. Some are indeed fleeing life threatening persecution at home. But many of the millions (over 50 millíon according to the UN in 2014) are seeking a better quality of life. They are usually referred to as economic refugees and mostly come from the Middle East or Africa. Many have few if any skills that will help them into jobs in Paris, Berlin, London or Sydney – not even language skills in many cases.
The existential moral challenge for Western democracies is how to respond – and its far more complicated than what basic humanitarian notions propose. Absorbing large numbers of financially dependent refugees poses two immediate problems for host countries:
1) the soaring, long term cost of housing, feeding and medicating millions of refugees, from the already strained state revenues provided by reluctant taxpayers and national economies squeezed by a variety of circumstances;
2) the expansion of ghettos of unemployed, unemployable refugees, young or not, fermenting like explosive chemicals , feeling entitled to support but unable to contribute, alienated and vulnerable.
There is the intangible but real problem of social integration to make matters even more complicated.
There is an argument that Western democracies can afford and are morally obliged to help such refugees. But this argument is in a reality vacuum. Is there a limit on the numbers? The numbers are growing. Who decides where to draw the line? What about the poverty stricken, unemployed or indigenous disadvantaged of the host countries? Do they not warrant charity to begin at home, and that share of resources increasingly going to economic migrants? What moral rights do economic refugees have over hosts? The sheer scale of it is overwhelming, as mass migration expands on its own momentum, deaths on the journeys notwithstanding.
Further quetions arise as time passes, as it already has: when minority groups grow and become pressure groups, will they skew public policy as vote-chasing officails pursue their wishes? When migrant groups present profoundly conflicting cultures within the host societies, what then?
The moral question is so complex it defies simplistic answers and it is an imperative question for democracies because without working out how to respond to this challenge, democracies will inevitably begin to weaken- as they already have. Homogenous communities are increasingly multicultural, but not in a good way. Tensions are splintering communities and even entire societies. France is a sad example. The basic concept of a dress code has torn French society viz Muslim clothing. The confusion about what is or is not reasonable is driven by the confusion about religious freedom as it intercuts with the social fabric (pun not intended).
The question can be boiled down (if oversimplified) to whether Western democracies, the US but mostly Europe, are willing to welcome the desperate refugees from the rest of the world, whose heroic struggle to reach their hosts are emotional bombs but whose contributions are limited. Will Europe’s citizens share their wealth, degrading their own quality of life in the process, for such a humanitarian end result? Yea or nay, how will governments deal with the matter?
The Australian experience offers no answers, no solutions, no methods of managing such issues.
Conflicting demands of democracy – conflict between the needs of the hosts and the refugees, for a start – are making this the greatest threat to democracies because there is no ‘right’ answer; there is not even an evident ‘right’way to manage the issue, never mind resolve it, if resolve means to stop it happening.
In return for refuge and support, what responsibilities can the Western hosts ask of refugees to shoulder? Can the ongoing welfare support be maintained? Is it really the right thing to do morally? Whose rights are more equal?
Vast, sombre questions that have not even been asked so far.