Managing the Refugee crisis: Who has a duty to assist? What is fair?

Live illustration by cartoonist Maarten Wolterink at the "Facing Grand Challenges Together" workshop
Cartoonist Maarten Wolterink

The refugee crisis poses obvious practical and political challenges: what are the local communities at whose shores thousands of migrants arrive to do? Ethical questions however, pose themselves with the same urgency: Who has a duty to assist? And what does fairness require?

At the recent “Facing Grand Challenges Together” conference, Marios Andriotis, advisor to the mayor of Lesbos said that they had been left alone to deal with the crisis – and that that was unfair. What does “fairness” require in such situations?

Being fair often simply comes down to treating people equally. Does that help in assessing the challenge from Lesbos and Greece? It seems there is the presupposition that all Europeans have an equal duty to assist in the refugee crisis. In saying that, Marios Andriotis is in good company: not only does it seem immediately plausible. There are also arguments by utilitarian philosophers such as Peter Singer that speak in favour of it.

How should an equal duty to assist be discharged by European countries that have unequal access to resources? Whenever there is no equality, fairness requires using the principle of proportionality. So, European countries should share the costs of assisting proportionally to their capacity to help.

How to determine the capacity to help, though? One could for instance use indicators like GDP and population size. But how exactly should they factor? Take two European countries, Germany and Romania. If we let GDP and population size each determine half of the capacity to help, Germany takes roughly six times more refugees than Romania. But the philosophers Anna Bartsch and Luc Bovens say that we should multiply: the average German is five times richer than the average Romanian, and there are roughly four times more Germans than Romanians. So Germany should accommodate 20 times more refugees than Romania.

Determining what is fair thus requires thorough ethical reflection about what matters in defining and measuring capacities. And this, in turn, is only possible when there is a great deal of clarity and consensus about what exactly ought to be provided in order to discharge the duty to assist in the refugee crisis.

A detailed report of the “Facing Grand Challenges Together” workshop

More information

This blogpost is written by Dr. Conrad Heilmann and is the first of a series by the Erasmus Initiative Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity. 

Conrad Heilmann is associate professor at the Erasmus School of Philosophy, a co-director of the Erasmus Institute for Philosophy and Economics (EIPE) and a member of the core team of the Erasmus Initiative  "Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity".

Conrad Heilmann does research in philosophy of economics, in particular on fairness, behavioural economics, discounting, and measurement. He also has broader interests in the philosophy of science and social science as well as social and moral philosophy. 

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