On migrants dying in the Med

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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9 thoughts on “On migrants dying in the Med

  1. How about learning from Australia? Australia faces the same problem and solves it by “outsourcing” the illegal immigrants to PNG. Even if they are given a refugee status, they are not allowed into Australia. If “prospective migrants” or “illegal infiltrants”, whatever you label them, have no chance of staying in Europe, the amount of those who attempt to cross to Europe will drop spectacularly.

    I also see a potential flaw in your calculations. If the European countries do their best to ensure safety of the migrants, this will encourage more to attempt the crossing. Suppose we make our best effort and a smaller proportion of the migrants will drown. But the flow of migrants will be so much bigger, that in absolute numbers more will drown.

    To put numbers on it, say 1000 people attempt the journey and 10 of them drown (1% is about the current death rate on the Med). If you start a rescue program and reduce the drownings to 0.5%, but 10 000 people attempt to cross, then 50 will drown. You’ve just caused more deaths at sea – exactly what happens at the moment. On the other hand, if you cease all efforts of rescue, perhaps 5% will drown. But if given these odds only 100 will attempt to cross then just 5 will drown, so fewer people will have lost their lives as a result of NOT making an effort to rescue at all.

    Now don’t get me wrong – I am not advocating this solution because there is no data to support it and I am not sure how to view this from a moral point. But it is an effect that must be considered, so when you do advocate your solution, you must think of the potential increase in loss of life it may cause. It just might be that your good intentions will cause MORE and not less suffering and death. I would like to know whether you have taken this “side-effect” into consideration and whether you consider it morally justifiable to rescue more people at the cost of more deaths.

    1. Thanks for your comment. All very possible, though it is only speculation. I don’t think the potential for an increase in the flow of migrants is a sufficient reason not to give it a try. The policy wouldn’t necessitate allowing a higher number of people to actually stay, so the additional costs would only relate to the processing of the migrants.

      If anything I would have thought a concerted effort to control the flow of migrants in a humanitarian way could help us get a better grip on the numbers and handle migrants more appropriately (and cost-effectively). Much better than the current see-no-evil approach, I would’ve thought.

      Edit: I missed your question on the moral point. I’d take a non-utilitarian stance on it. I think that European states have a responsibility to take any reasonable action (however defined) to prevent deaths of people crossing the Med. If more people attempt the crossing and therefore more die, I wouldn’t consider European states morally responsible for this.

      1. I disagree that the policy wouldn’t necessitate allowing a higher number of people to actually stay. Very few migrants leave Europe, on the contrary, they tend to bring family to reunite with them. So let me state my questions in economical terms.

        1) What is the benefit for European states in paying additional costs for the processing and accommodation of migrants?
        2) Can a price tag be assigned to deaths at sea and what would be (economically) the best mechanism to reduce these costs?

        If European states take action to prevent deaths of people crossing the Med, but more people die as a result, wouldn’t that be a reason to stop taking that action? What is the objective of the action? Is it to reduce total deaths or increase the chances of survival during crossing? If we can answer this question, then we can debate the most economically efficient and morally justified course of action.

        At this point, the situation seems as follows: 1) Migrants are coming 2) Some are drowning 3) Efforts to reduce numbers of drowning migrants are taken 4) Encouraged by improved safety, more migrants are coming 5) More are drowning 6) Repeat

        I see this as a vicious cycle and would like to see a concious effort to find a long-term solution to the problem. Your suggestion sounds to me like more of the same, on a bigger scale.

        1. 3 onwards is complete speculation. We have no idea whether more people would die. Were it to happen, we could then decide on the best course of action given the facts. To answer your questions, in my view: 1) there needn’t be benefits if we consider it a responsibility and 2) a price tag could be attached, but it doesn’t seem necessary at this stage.

          As far as I know there has been no substantive EU-wide attempt to reduce the number of people dying. This blog post concerns the immediate response to the crisis. The efficiency and morality of different long-term solutions can be debated. Meanwhile, people die. The EU needs to act because unilateral action has been demonstrated to be unsustainable (e.g. Mare Nostrum). Continuing to sit on our hands is not an option.

          1. My point exactly. We have no idea what the impact of our actions is. So I say it is a good idea to actually evaluate the consequences of a policy before implementing it. Immediate response is often a knee-jerk one, that may be counterproductive on the long-term.

            Mare Nostrum and its successor were exactly that – an attempt to reduce the number of people dying. Sadly, more people are dying. Whether it is as a result of these operations or despite them is a point nobody, including you, seems willing to consider, let alone investigate.

              1. I think the best solution to the crisis (which is, that many people die in the Med trying to cross) is to reduce the numbers of those attempting to cross. I have some thoughts of my own on how to achieve this but it is a bit too long for a comment here, so I’ll just write my own post about it in due time. I’ll link it here when I do.

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