For all its difficulties, Europe is prosperous and safe: one of the best places on Earth. Many other societies have yet to achieve this happy state: some are murderous and poor. Two of the most troubled zones in the world are near Europe: the Middle East, and the Sahelian belt which spans northern Africa.
Unsurprisingly, many of the people who live in these societies would rather live in Europe. Impeded by immigration controls, a small minority of this group are taking matters into their own hands, trying to enter Europe illegally by boat across the Mediterranean. Some succeed, like those now camped in Calais, trying to smuggle their way on to trains and trucks bound for Britain. Others board boats that sink, leaving them floundering in the Med. Sporadically, official Europe rescues these people in a fit of conscience. As with the euro itself, high principle has collided with low politics and the result is avoidable suffering.
Unlike the euro, it would not be difficult to put right. If you step outside the usual angry ding-dong, the posturing of those both pro-immigrant and anti-immigrant; if you resist the easy option taken by the chattering classes who claim the moral high ground by insisting on open borders, you can see that European policy is the result of moral confusion.
Let’s take the ‘duty of rescue’, which is official Europe’s rationale for fishing people out of the sea. People have a right to dream of a life in Europe, but Europe has a moral obligation to rescue, not to make dreams come true.
What does rescue imply and to whom does it apply? Just being poor does not make someone eligible for being ‘rescued’ by a life in Europe. Mass poverty has to be tackled, but the only way it can be done is for poor countries to catch up with the rich ones. There are ways in which we can help that process, but encouraging the mass emigration of their most enterprising young people is not one of them. What makes people truly entitled to rescue is if their ordinary lives are made impossible by violent conflict — and in the current crisis, that means focusing on Syria. Yes, there are other legitimate refugees on those boats, but Syrians alone account for around 40 per cent of the boat people crossing the Mediterranean.
And those Syrians waving and drowning in the sea are merely the tip of a vastly larger iceberg of need. Of Syria’s 20 million people, around half are now displaced. This ten million are the submerged iceberg: the group to whom we have some duty of rescue. They are displaced through circumstance rather than choice. The tiny minority (about 2 per cent) in the sea and camped on our doorstep are part of our duty of rescue, but they should not be allowed to crowd out the needs of others: for one thing, they tend to be richer and more resourceful.
Of the ten million who are displaced, around half are still in Syria, trapped now that Jordan and Lebanon have closed their borders. It is obviously more difficult for Europe to help the internally displaced within Syria, but there are still ways of doing so. These five million should not be forgotten just because they have not created a problem for other nations.
The other five million are in neighbouring countries: mostly in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. How can Europe help these people? The official international solution to refugee situations is camps, a strategy dating back to 1947. This system is not working and, indeed, it cannot possibly work. Just look at Jordan. Nearly 90 per cent of the refugees in Jordan have chosen not to live in the camps but have instead drifted to the cities. They forgo handouts in favour of scratching a living in illegal employment.
So what is wrong with the camps? Having recently visited the largest, Za’atari, I doubt whether it is the standard of living. The UNHCR does a commendable job: people are well-fed and their housing conditions are far superior to the African cities with which I am more familiar. Whatever our duty of rescue to Syrian refugees, improving the material conditions of the camps is not a priority. The problem of the camps is that people have no autonomy: most especially, they are not allowed to work.
In a jobless Arab household in the camps, it is hard for parents to retain authority. Teenage girls are lured into prostitution, teenage boys drift back to Syria and to armed gangs. The lack of autonomy extends beyond work: although there are around 200 Syrian teachers living as refugees in camps, they live in enforced idleness. Refugee children are taught by Jordanian teachers to the Jordanian curriculum. It’s not surprising that refugees overwhelmingly prefer penurious freedom to the restrictions of the camps.
Why is autonomy in the cities penurious? Because the Jordanian authorities do not let refugees work. Given the scale of the influx, the Jordanians are unsurprisingly worried that letting the Syrians work could destabilise their society and, given the disorder elsewhere in the Middle East, this cannot be lightly dismissed. Jordanian security depends upon a complex and delicate system of political inclusion which links the monarchy organically and historically to each part of society. Syrians cannot readily be inserted into this system, which means a section of future Jordanian society will be disconnected and thereby disaffected.
If the Jordanian authorities will not integrate refugees into their society, what can Europe do for them? Should we invite them to Europe? This has been the defining issue so far in European discussion of the Syrian refugee crisis: ‘How many refugees should Europe take?’ It’s all about us. Unfortunately, while well meaning, this approach is fundamentally irresponsible when judged from the perspective not of the consequences for Europe, but the consequences for Syrians.
Our duty is to provide better futures for as many of the displaced as possible — and their overwhelming hope is not to live permanently in Europe, but to return to a post-conflict Syria. Effective rescue should be about salvaging as much of their disrupted lives as possible. Of course, if they are in the sea, rescue involves pulling them out of it. But any action needs to be set within a larger strategy of making people’s return viable.
The key fact to grasp about the Syrian conflict is that it will end; conflicts in middle–income countries seldom last more than a decade and this one has already been running for four years. There is an obvious endgame, in which the Syrian army dumps Assad as a liability and leads a broad anti-Isis alliance. Once parts of Syria return to peace, they will face a fairly standard challenge of post-conflict recovery. Post-conflict situations are politically fragile, and rapid economic recovery helps to stabilise them. The smart way to meet the duty to rescue is to incubate that economic recovery now, before the conflict ends.
Europe can do that by fostering a Syria–in-exile economy located in Jordan and other neighbouring countries. Working in this economy would restore some dignity to the daily lives of refugees and offer them credible hope of a return to normality. Providing a skilled minority of Syrians with dream lives in Europe is not the answer: it would be detrimental to recovery because once settled in Europe, with their children in schooling, such people would be unlikely to go back to a post-conflict society. In consequence, it would gut Syria of the very people it will most need. It is an intellectually lazy feel-good policy for the bien‑pensant.
Just minutes from the Za’atari camp is an empty industrial zone, fully equipped with infrastructure. This could be a perfect haven of employment, the means by which Europe could incubate Syrian post-conflict recovery. This zone alone is large enough to employ the labour force of Za’atari several times over. The people working there would recover their autonomy, and have a prospect of relocating to Syria when the war is over. The zone could house Syrian businesses that cannot continue to function at home, as well as a cluster of global companies producing for the European market. It could employ both Syrians and Jordanians. Europe could provide the incentives which make this happen. Each job created could attract a subsidy financed out of the money Europe quite rightly earmarks for assistance to fragile states, and their work could be given open access to European markets.
Once peace returns, these businesses could relocate with their returning Syrian workforce, while also continuing to operate in Jordan with their Jordanian workforce. The Jordanian authorities would be supportive because it offers a credible alternative to the permanent settlement which they fear, and would attract global firms to Jordan. The approach could be replicated with Syria’s other neighbours.
Job havens would not only assist refugees; indirectly they would help the five million displaced who remain in Syria. In return for European assistance, the neighbouring governments could be asked to re-open their borders. Accessible and attractive safe havens across the border would be a lifeline for these internally displaced people. As firms and workers relocated to the havens, it would put further financial pressure on Assad.
Victorian ladies would sometimes deliberately leave valuables conspicuously ‘mislaid’ in the hopes that their servants would succumb to stealing them, affording their mistresses delectable opportunities for moral grandstanding. We now recognise this as a breach of a basic moral duty of the fortunate towards the less fortunate: ‘Thou shall not tempt.’ Currently, if a refugee can get a foot on a European beach, or be fished out of the sea by a European rescue vessel, they get privileged access to asylum. That is why they take the risk.
This legal structure is not just foolish, it is deeply immoral. Europe has a duty to fish refugees out of the sea because it is morally responsible for tempting them on to the sea. So whatever else Europe does, it must stop this policy of temptation. Paying a crook thousands of dollars for a place on a boat should not entitle a Syrian refugee to a more privileged entry to Europe. It is profoundly unfair to the other suffering refugees.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 8 August 2015