I recently listened to an episode of The Inquiry concerning the recent reports of migrants dying in their attempts to cross the Mediterranean. More than 3000 people are estimated to have died last year. The show asks the question of whether Europe could stop this happening – the answer, essentially, being ‘yes’.

The experts present an interesting array of conflicting views on the crisis. Naturally, I see the problem from an economist’s perspective: a problem of choices and incentives.

There are two possible changes to the status quo that would solve the crisis: either A) prospective migrants cease trying to make the journey, or B) European countries ensure the safety of those who do. The two are not mutually exclusive, yet this seems to be how the problem is currently perceived. That’s understandable. If migrants stop making the journey there’s no need to ensure their safety. But if we do ensure their safety, more will attempt the journey. Still, I think this perception needs reviewing.

So how could we achieve option A? Well, we’d either need to increase the expected cost of the journey for migrants or decrease the expected benefit. Ensuring safety decreases the expected cost (i.e. reduces the probability of death), so can be expected to increase attempts. The only humanitarian way of increasing the opportunity cost of the journey would be to improve the standard of living for potential migrants in their home countries. This could provide a selfish justification for prioritising aid for these regions, that I wouldn’t necessarily oppose. But while this could be a long-term solution, there is little prospect of it making any difference in the short-term. The other side of the coin – decreasing the expected benefits – is a non-starter. Given that the migrants’ lives are sufficiently bad for them to risk death, we would have to ensure that their lives were almost as unbearable once they arrived in Europe.

The only short- to medium-term solution, therefore, is option B. European countries must ensure the safety of the migrants. I think it is our humanitarian responsibility to do so, and for me the argument becomes one of having to justify not doing this. But I know many would disagree, because there is also a cost-benefit calculation on the side of receiving countries. We don’t have all that much control over the benefit that migrants have to receiving countries, but we can certainly adjust the costs. Happily, the EU offers the ideal opportunity for collective responsibility. Currently, receiving countries are responsible for migrants to the EU. If a migrant lands in Italy, the Italians have to deal with them. If they are first picked-up in the UK, the UK has to deal with them. The solution seems clear to me – this responsibility should shift to the EU. The EU should be responsible for each migrant that lands anywhere in the EU. Any direct costs should be shouldered centrally by the EU. If a migrant claims asylum, the claim should be to the EU, and the EU should have the power to grant asylum to which ever country it deems fit (based on a fair distribution across countries). Through this mechanism the (perceived) burden would be redistributed from countries like Italy, France, Germany and the UK to other EU member states.

Personally, I support the moral case for open borders. But that’s not going to happen any time soon, so we need politically practical solutions. It seems to me that in this case there is one available.

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