The Refugee Crisis

A distressed vessel 300 miles from shore with 90 people on board, including women and children.

A distressed vessel 300 miles from shore with 90 people on board, including women and children.

So what should we do about the thousands of human beings risking their lives to find a safe haven in Europe? Newspapers are full of harrowing pictures; crammed boats negotiating wild seas, elderly people trudging through the snow clutching their belongings, large-eyed children bewilderedly being made to walk yet more miles in the cold.

There are two extreme responses to the situation. According to the first, morality insists we let these people in and give them the refuge they so desperately seek. According to the second prudence insists we keep them out because we have problems enough of our own, problems which will only be exacerbated if we take on theirs. I can see both arguments.

Iraqi Refugees

Iraqi Refugees

I too am moved to despair by the pictures. I cannot bear the thought of these people, who have lost everything, being made to walk further, to live in tents, to draw cold water from a shared tap and to live on meagre rations, handouts from our tables of plenty. I expect, generally speaking, to be comfortable in my upcoming retirement. Many of the people struggling across the mountains will also have been expecting to retire comfortably only a few years ago. How would I feel if what is happening to them were to happen to me? Surely it is only right to take them in?

Anyway, isn’t it to our benefit that we take them in? Many of them are well qualified doctors, lawyers, engineers. They will soon get back on their feet and start making a contribution. Admitting the Jews in WWII and the Ugandan Asians in the 70s didn’t do us any harm. Arguably did us a lot of good.

Waiting lists are high and getting higher

Waiting lists are high and getting higher

But I am also aware of the difficulties at home. The NHS is on its knees. Every medical advance puts another million people on the waiting list. Our schools are full to bursting. Can we really ask them to take more children – especially traumatised children who do not speak English? The lack of affordable homes resulted in 50,000 families becoming homeless last year. Given the fact we don’t seem to be able to look after our own properly, how can we wantonly admit to our shores yet more thousands of people?

This is not to mention the worry about who we will be admitting. 65.2% of the 200,000 people making application for asylum in Germany last year were men or boys, mostly aged between 18 and 25. It is this demographic who are most likely to be radicalized. Do we really want to import problems such as those experienced by the women of Cologne on New Year’s Eve?

Calais Jungle

Calais Jungle

So, I run through the arguments for and against, and wonder how we are going to square this circle. I see the Prime Minister’s point about providing aid to those who haven’t travelled to Europe. It is undoubtedly the case that providing aid to, or admitting those who have, will encourage more to make the perilous journey. But can we blame people for wanting to flee an area ravaged by war, homes and lives that have been reduced to rubble? And if we are considering our own benefit, isn’t there something in the claim that it is those who have made the journey who are most likely to be the ones who will eventually contribute most to our own society?

There are times when I am very glad I do not have to make the decisions. Sometimes people talk as if it is easy. How can it be when both sides are so balanced? But I can do a few things off my own bat. I can (and do) give money, and I have offered to house refugees in my own house. I am happy to find that I am at the end of a long waiting list of people who have done likewise: this supports my belief that most people are good most of the time.

But what do you think?

About Marianne

Marianne is Director of Studies in Philosophy at Oxford University's Department for Continuing Education
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34 Responses to The Refugee Crisis

  1. Jane B says:

    I think some long-term thinking is in order here. Thoughts that take us beyond the present crisis. A root cause if the problem in Syria is drought caused by climate change. As global warming advances, more populations will be displaced. Countries will have to adapt to more frequent population migrations. What would this look like? More flexible systems to look after people’s basic needs and ways to have them contribute to the systems that are supporting them, perhaps.

    • Marianne says:

      Hi Jane,

      I agree that climate change is going to prompt more of the same. But dealing with it is a very long term problem, and not clear how it would help here?

  2. Iain King says:

    The virtuous response is to be compassionate; and we define ourselves by how we help people unable to help us in return.
    The deontological response is to help people in need, while recognising our good fortune at not being in their situation is entirely unearned.
    The consequentialist response is to note that, after some initial disruption, welcoming migrants is usually very beneficial to an area.

    Fortunately, all three approaches align.

    • David Lilley says:


      This is an educated comment but unfortunately all three approaches are incorrect. (1) show me an altruist and I will show you an egotist, show me an egotist and I will l show you an altruist. They don’t exist. Only Kant’s rational beings exists. (2) the categorical imperative is 200 years old and (3) the silly GHP is over 150 years old. We moved on to “On Liberty” and the rule of law. We don’t do good and bad and we certainly don’t do evil. We just do freedom to do whatever you like provided you don’t break the law. And our laws of the land are near perfect and we give you every encouragement to change them if, and only if, you have the best argument. We are ruled by the best argument and what could be a better ruler?

      It isn’t widely reported that the refuges from Syria only get three years and that may be reduced to one year in Germany. Marianne reports 67% being young males aged 16 to 24. Others report 70, 72 and even 82% are between the ages of 16 and 36. If they bring in their families 1.1m in Germany suddenly becomes 5m.

    • Marianne says:

      Hi Iain,

      I’m glad you think all three approaches align! So why is there a problem? Or do you think there is no problem – we should welcome all the refugees? What do you say to those who think that welcoming thm on board would sink the ship?


      • Iain King says:


        Where would I draw the line? If this were just a case of individuals helping other individuals, I would say each should offer charity until the cumulative cost of giving to the individual givers begins to exceed the benefit it can bring to the next beneficiary. Since we’re dealing with communities offering help, the formula would become more complicated, but essentially we should be much more charitable than we are.

        (I also query the self-interested argument that helping refugees harms local communities and incurs great costs – yes, there’s significant disruption, but in the medium term, it often works out well for all: Louisiana in the US has gained immensely from the influx of Bosnians in the 1990s; the State Governor recently said he wished they’d allowed more to come).

      • Marianne says:

        I think it is clearly true (and demonstrable) that migrants can, in the end, be of great benefits to communities – but people do not like, indeed fear, disruption.

      • Iain King says:

        Absolutely. There are two things that need doing: informing them (against the demagogues) that migration is often good; and

      • Iain King says:

        …and persuading them that helping migrants in distress is a good thing to do.

      • Marianne says:

        But it is obvious now that not everyone is going to agree.

  3. David Lilley says:

    I say this with a little tongue in cheek. Why don’t we just do the right thing? There isn’t a good or a bad choice to be made. If we knew what was good and bad we wouldn’t have a history of attempted definitions. The right thing to do is to submit to the best argument in the same way that we make all of our moral decisions in mature parliamentary democracies.

  4. I take it you send me these posts individually? I saw it, and the post on the Inconsistency Weekend, on your FB page. But if I am on circulation list, so be it.What do I think?What would I do?I have no idea. It does seem to be a result of global warming, and we seem to be imititating King Cnut, with probably similar results, except that they fished him out, I believe?Once the whole planet is fried there will be no problem. I try to keep down my energy usage, and make regular donations to Oxfam and a few others, but we really need a solution that works, and I do not know of one.Regards,Bill.

    From: Marianne Talbot Philosophy To: Sent: Wednesday, 27 January 2016, 12:46 Subject: [New post] The Refugee Crisis #yiv8847072191 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv8847072191 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv8847072191 a.yiv8847072191primaryactionlink:link, #yiv8847072191 a.yiv8847072191primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv8847072191 a.yiv8847072191primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv8847072191 a.yiv8847072191primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv8847072191 | Marianne posted: “So what should we do about the thousands of human beings risking their lives to find a safe haven in Europe? Newspapers are full of harrowing pictures; crammed boats negotiating wild seas, elderly people trudging through the snow clutching their belon” | |

    • Marianne says:

      Hi Bill, no you are one of the people who is subscribing to this website, so you get the posts automatically as I post them! Jane agrees with you that the only thing we can do is something that might halt climate change. But I think we need a more immediate solution to the problem.

  5. Stefan H says:

    I stumbled across this blog post after seeing one of your youtube videos, and being a German I thought I might qualify for a comment here.

    Is it not peculiar that people often point to the large scale of a problem when they really want to justify their complete inaction? “There are such a lot of refugees, we can’t possibly take everybody!” The continuation, which is usually communicated silently, is: “… so let’s not take anybody.” Hints towards even larger problems, such as the prospect of even bigger migrant flows because of climate change, exaggerate this even more.

    Meanwhile, it is clear that if everybody acted together and shared the burden, even a large problem could be tackled successfully.

    I don’t know if this looks the same from the British perspective as it does from the German, but for the Germans it sure looks as if European solidarity had broken down completely over this refugee matter, and the problem becomes intractable precisely because there’s no cooperation.

    So there seems to be a different factor at play, in addition to morality and prudence, and it has got something to do with community. The problem looks different (most likely simpler to solve) when you look at it from a community viewpoint.

    So perhaps one of the more interestinq questions here is, why is the idea of common responsibility and solidarity and common problem solving, disintegrating so readily in Europe in the face of this refugee crisis?

    • Marianne says:

      You certainly qualify for a comment, German or not.I agree with the idea that everyone working together could solve even large problems (climate change for example). I think your question is a very interesting one. My answer would be because people fear their lifestyles are threatened.

      • Stefan H says:

        That may well be so, but isn’t our lifestyle a consequence of, and dependent on the community? If so, isn’t the lifestyle threatened even more when the community breaks down?

      • Marianne says:

        It sure would be. I am not giving my own answer but suggesting that this is how many would reply.

  6. Stefan H says:

    But why do they not see the irrationality, and counterproductivity (counterproductiveness?) of their stance?

    • Marianne says:

      Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone was perfectly rational? But do you think it would be the case, if they were, that they’d all agree with each other?

      • Stefan H says:

        I’m not sure there is such a thing as “perfect rationality”. I’m quite aware that there can be different rational answers to the same question, so I wouldn’t expect complete unanimity.

        But your answer is a bit of a dodge, isn’t it? We’re discussing philosophy here, and the question is what’s right, and how should I (or we) act, at least that’s how I understand your aim.

        So how does one deal with a situation where people react to a problem in a psychologically understandable, but nevertheless counterproductive way? Is it OK to override them (for their own good, so to say)? Or does one have to accept the damage, and accept that people are entitled to their irrationality, even when that means a disadvantage to everybody?

        Is there a philosophy (or an ethic) of panic?

      • Marianne says:

        I am sure there ISN’T such a thing as perfect rationality (except in theory). My question is not a ‘dodge’ so much as answering one question with another. I can see why you might think that is a dodge. But the question you asked is unanswerable (at least by a philosopher). All I can do is speculate. The question is an empirical one. But the question you are now asking is an interesting one. The question of whether paternalism is Ok is a perennial. But isn’t the problem with it that one must assume one knows THE TRUTH. Does one ever know that one knows the truth?

      • jrubinstein says:

        I think when I used the word selfish I was describing those aspects of my own responses which mirror those which prevent our society offering a more generous welcome to the displaced and dispossessed. Our politicians feel obliged to protect us from any impact on our lifestyles. While I absolutely agree that the practical problems they face are huge and as you rightly say I couldn’t begin to tackle them myself I do feel our failure to elect politicians who are willing to promise some loss to our comfort limits things in so many areas.

      • Marianne says:

        I agree – but suspect we get the politicians we deserve – i.e. the politicians won’t countenance our facing loss, because WE won’t countenance facing loss.

  7. jrubinstein says:

    So far as I can see nobody has posted an ethical objection to helping the refugees here as yet and indeed I can’t see one myself. What we are faced with therefore are practical difficulties and the question of the best practical approach. I’m not diminishing the real problems that the refugees pose but at the very least we should acknowledge that our objections to taking these people in are largely selfish ones.

    I’d like to think that when one country shows humanitarian spirit others may follow and if Europe as a whole responds fully the problem for each country within it is far less.

    Ultimately this problem seems to me to follow the fact that our neighbors are now spread across the globe. They can see us eating and we can watch them starve. We can build a gated community or we can try to help.

    • Marianne says:

      I think my whole blog was an attempt to put both sides of the problem. The ‘ethical’ problem, though is, I guess, more of a practical one – that is probably what you mean…? But I don’t think the practical difficulties need be seen as ‘selfish’ exactly. I cannot help others if I need help myself surely? One of the first rules of caring is that you must take care not to go under because that doesn’t help anyone.

      But I am in complete sympathy with the claim that it is of prime importance that we can now see people starve as they can see us eat – our neighbours are indeed spread around the globe.

  8. It’s an interesting discussion. I do think one very important part of this that people often miss is that we should really rethink the sorts of policies that contribute to such crises to begin with. Unfortunately, I do think a lot of westerners are comfortable with the notion that some regions of the world are permanently hopeless, and they seek to isolate those regions and control their population. That such diplomatic policies help to create crises like we have in Syria doesn’t seem to matter. It should.

    • Marianne says:

      Hi again Daniel,

      It is not clear to me that the policies that led to the crisis were under our control. But I do agree that anyone involved in politics, especially internationally, needs to take account of the possible consequences of those policies. But I suspect they would think they do – and like everyone else they are fallible. I do, though, hope we canst some stage learn from this dreadful situation how to avoid a similar situation arising again.


  9. Karel says:

    Your question is what can we do for refugees arriving in Europe. So when I think of our majority society, which is selfish, racist, hedonistic, opportunistic and therefore turned only for its own benefit. Such a society, of course, denies any aid to refugees before the war. So society is at a low level and the only way is higher education of society, what you have been doing for many years. But this is a long-distance run.
    I will personally answer the question about helping refugees as follows. When I take care of seniors in the area and I can help them in some way, it is a priority for me. However, I do not think that literally sacrificing oneself for others is right.
    If I were prime minister, I would know what to do, it is impossible to plan ahead. If my relative became prime minister, I could talk to him about it, but nothing can be planned here, because politics is very populist.

    • Marianne says:

      Would you really know what to do if you were PM? I think if so you are much clearer the I am on this issue – I think the balance between health and the economy is a very difficult one.

      • Karel says:

        Yes, I agree that balancing health and the economy is difficult. I think that in difficult situations you have to make decisions logically and not emotionally. I think it is always necessary for millions of people to make society work, and in the event of a pandemic, you have to reckon with people dying. When there are people in the management of society who cannot overcome the fear of death, then it is not good. Fear is a bad mentor.
        The direction of thinking that comes from religion to save and protect people is not right, because it can lead to the collapse of society. I think that, in the case of refugees, we should first cooperate between states and then consider the level of aid that is acceptable to society.

      • Marianne says:

        It is perfectly reasonable for those in power in a democracy to fear death – if they allow too many people to die they will lose power. It is also true that if they allow the economy to go to the dogs they will also lose power. This is, of course, why it is so difficult.

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