Migrants welcome! errr …

Sweden’s re-introduction of border checks on 11 November, the same day as the European Union announced a €1.8bn aid package to encourage potential African migrants to stay in their country of origin,  perfectly illustrated the confused thinking which governs European attitudes to the current crisis. It is estimated that over three thousand migrants have died at sea in 2015 alone, while over 700 thousand actually made it into Europe, to be greeted with attitudes ranging from Chancellor Angela Merkel proclaiming that Germany was open to migrants – and even taking selfies with them – to Hungary building a barbed wire fence to keep them out.

Sweden had very much been in the pro-migrant camp, but suffered a change of heart as nearly 200 thousand migrants arrived in the country. The idealistic and principled stand for which Sweden was praised has been challenged by the reality of what such a policy actually entails. The EU’s aid package gives the impression of significant and decisive action to solve the crisis, but amounts to only around €8 per person in the countries concerned.  I think Sweden and the EU package illustrate how the understandable impulse to welcome migrants encourages people to deactivate the rational part of their brain and indulge in a quasi-superstitious form of thinking. Worse, it allows people to airbrush the fact that the crisis is largely caused by the very dewy eyed idealism which currently urges European countries to open their doors.

My heart is with the migrants

Arguing against welcoming migrants does not come easily to me. As I wrote elsewhere, having four families who were refugees from the odious Chilean dictator Pinochet stay in our home in the eighties was one of the defining experiences of my childhood. And it has has been particularly difficult to challenge the wisdom of letting more migrants in given the range of institutions and high profile advocates speaking out for the migrants. Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty (the charity through which our Chilean refugees found their way to us) in the UK said in April: “The equivalent of five passenger planes full of people has drowned last week alone, and this is only the start of the summer. If they had been holiday makers, instead of migrants, imagine the response.”

In the last few weeks, groups with considerable moral authority have advocated with much fanfare that the UK should take in more migrants. In a letter to the Times and the Guardian on Monday 12 October, 354 high profile signatories from the “legal community,” including 12 retired judges, 105 QCs (the most prestigious title for a lawyer in the UK) and 26 professors of law and international migration, called on the UK to take “more than” the 20 thousand migrants it has said it would allow in over five years. On the 17th of October, 84 Church of England Bishops called for at least 50,000 migrants to be allowed into the UK over the same period.

Confronted with pictures of migrants dying at sea (most notably the three year old Aylan Kurdi) and with the stories of persecution and poverty told at the border, it seems heartless to refuse to let these people in. But only letting in the migrants who tell the stories we happen to hear isn’t a realistic option. Each and every migrant has a poignant story to tell – after all, why else would they pay the extortionate costs and brave the deadly risks of the voyage? If you are moved to pity by one story you will be moved to pity by all of them. Inevitably, every vivid and moving narrative of each individual migrant contributes to the more abstract and less tangible reality of the aggregate number of migrants coming to various countries in Europe (currently over 700 thousand in 2015 alone as alluded to earlier).

Making sense of the impact of such large numbers of people is difficult for the human brain. As Daniel Kahneman writes in Thinking, Fast and Slow (2013): “personal experiences, pictures, and vivid examples are more available than incidents that happen to others, or mere words, or statistics.” The personal experience of each individual migrant is a vivid example which is easy to respond to, the statistics which those personal experiences all add up to are much harder to grasp. You can remember one of these poignant personal stories vividly, but imagine having to listen to all seven hundred thousand plus of these stories one after another – how easy would it be to remember or make sense of that?

Emptying an ocean of sorrow with a teaspoon

But we do have to make sense of the numbers. Just because they are difficult to imagine or “relate to” doesn’t mean they are not real. Let’s imagine for instance that the UK listens to the Bishops and takes in another 30 thousand refugees over the next five years: what impact would that have on the migrant crisis? To answer that question you need to know what is being impacted. What is being impacted is the total number of people, whether political refugees or economic migrants, who  want to come to Europe in search of a safer or a better life – now and in the future.

To get an idea of that we should start with the countries that are the sources of the migrants who are coming to Europe. According to the UNHCR, ten countries represent just over 90% of all migrant sea arrivals to Europe via the Mediterranean in 2015. I have added the population of each country on the right, based on publicly available data.

migrant chart

The total population of these ten countries is just over that of the entire European Union! So if every person from those countries were to come to Europe, Europe’s population would double. The extra 30 thousand advocated by the Bishops for the UK is equal to a microscopic 0.005% of the population of these ten source countries. Sweden is balking at admitting more migrants after letting 200 thousand in this year, but that is less than 0.03% of the total population of the source countries. Germany, the largest recipient of migrants, expects to admit 1m this year – a number which has already made Chancellor Merkel unpopular (for the first time since she first held the post). 1m is just 0.2% of the migrant source countries’ population.

It might be argued in response that not all the citizens of those countries will come to Europe. “Only” 770k came this year according to UNHCR. That’s “only” just under 0.15% of the population of those countries, after all. This might be used to argue that only a small percentage of the people in those migrant source countries feels the need to emigrate. Once they have been absorbed, all those who wanted to emigrate would have been taken in. Our work here would be done and we could ride off into the sunset, happy to have done the right thing. The influx of migrants would be “manageable,” and the size of the source countries would not be a relevant factor when it comes to deciding how many Europe would have to admit if it were to open its doors.

There are many reasons to doubt this reassuring hypothesis:

The causes of migration for this year’s migrants affect most of the people in their country of origin, not a small minority. Terrorists (such as ISIS, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, Al Shabab and the Taliban) hold sway in vast parts of the five largest countries on the list, and can strike anywhere in those countries with devastating effect. Simply put, most people in those countries are at risk from the terrorists and therefore have a good reason to want to move somewhere else. In none of those countries can the army or the government give its people a sense of security. And, in all of those ten countries, the majority of the population experiences poor job prospects, poverty and dismal living standards. Moreover lack of birth control results in growing populations that are harder and harder to feed and have less and less to look forward to. Bottom line: the factors which are making the current migrants migrate are also factors encouraging the majority of the country to migrate.

In 2014, it is estimated by the UNHCR that just over 250 thousand migrants came to Europe by sea, around a third of those making the journey this year. So the number of migrants coming by sea has actually increased year on year, despite a large number of those who felt the need to migrate having already left for Europe. This is not because of any worsening in the environment in the source countries. Syria was in just as much turmoil last year as it is this year. So was Afghanistan, so was Iraq, so was every single country on the list, give or take. The reasons for the increase are various and difficult to determine, but a common thread can be found in many of the migrants’ testimonies. The journey is dangerous and full of peril and uncertainty. So, in the beginning, only the bravest and most resourceful or the most desperate will attempt it. Once these “pioneers” have gone, the routes will have been explored and the perils identified in more detail. Successful and unsuccessful case studies will have emerged on which future migrants can base their own plans. Those who stayed at home will now have relatives and friends who have made it. Those early migrants can give their relatives and friends at home advice about the pitfalls, about which route to take and which smuggler to use. Whereas the first wave may have had no one to help them when they arrived, they are now there to help the next wave. So the next wave goes and some of them make it. Then a third wave – those who were a little more cautious and stayed behind – may see their example and be emboldened by it. And so on. And so on.

We do know that there is limited capacity for migrants to enter Europe. Only so many boats can sail and land at any given time. So the number of migrants every year is limited by that capacity, not necessarily by the number of people in their countries who want to migrate. Given this limited capacity, there will be competition for spaces on the boat. Sometimes it goes to the highest bidder, as numerous migrant accounts clearly testify. Sometimes the family decides that the member most at risk goes first, sometimes it is the hardiest and most able to make the journey. Of course the first thing all of them (however they are chosen) will do once they have arrived will be to try to help the rest of their family follow them. I would do exactly the same. So it seems that the people in those countries are waiting their turn, queuing in fact. Bottom line: the more migrants come to Europe, the more others in their country of origin are enabled and encouraged to follow them.

All of the countries in the top ten for migrants have high birth rates and very little practice of birth control. All but two are Muslim countries in which there is a strong religious and cultural opposition to birth control, and the same factors apply in Nigeria and Eritrea, the two non-majority Muslim countries (which have significant Muslim minorities). As people from those countries migrate to Europe, more are born and growing up to take their place. The number of migrants to Europe from those countries in 2015 as a percentage of their population (0.15%) is far less than their natural population growth rate. Bottom line: those countries could send the same number of migrants as they did in 2015 to Europe every year for ever, and their populations would still be growing.

In summary, many blithely assume that there is a finite number of people in each country that genuinely needs to emigrate. So the received wisdom is that the more we take in, the less need there is to take any more. Once we’ve taken them in we’ve emptied the well of suffering. However the opposite is true. There is no reason to believe there is such a limited number of potential migrants. The reasons for migrating affect the vast majority of all the people in these (growing) countries. It’s not a well, it’s an ocean. And the more people migrate from those countries the easier it is for others in that country to do the same


I’m not saying that the story of each individual migrant we hear on the news, and each individual migrant who tells it, isn’t unique and poignant. I am saying that unfortunately there have been and will be hundreds of thousands of others just as unique and just as poignant for every one we hear. The number of people who want to migrate to Europe is too vast to comprehend intuitively, on the small scale we find so compelling when hearing an individual story. It’s hard enough to imagine ten individual tales of suffering and injustice. Seven hundred thousand is inconceivable. But to truly take in the vast scale of the requirement you would have to imagine well over 50m uniquely heart breaking stories, several hundred times seven hundred thousand times that one story you could hardly bear to hear.

In the face of such an ocean of suffering, it’s easier “just” to focus on the individual stories you hear, and which you can understand and comprehend, and to ignore the overwhelming number of all those individual stories as they accumulate in your mind. It is the poignancy and immediacy of these individual experiences which give so much power to the desire of countries like Germany and Sweden, and groups like the Bishops and the Judges, to advocate an open policy for migrants. But just ignoring these numbers doesn’t make them any less real. It is the reality of the numbers into which those poignant individual stories inevitably translate which caused Sweden recently and Germany last month to abruptly change course (Germany closed its border with Austria, in contravention of EU law, only a few days after Merkel made one of her strongest statements in favor of allowing migrants into Germany).

The EU package of €1.8bn sounds like a lot of money at the headline level. It will generate a lot of positive soundbites. No doubt in a few years time there will be heart warming images of schools “funded by generous development aid from the EU” in Africa, complete with smiling children. But there are 245m people in the African countries among the top ten source countries for migrants in the chart above. And there are many other African countries (Algeria, Mauritania, Chad and Senegal to name a few) with endemic migration which don’t even make it into the top ten. Dividing €1.8bn in aid by 250m people gives you less than €8.00 in aid per person. The dramatic headline is easy to grasp and impressive. When measured against the more abstract aggregate numbers of people in the countries concerned its impact is risible.

The folly of the moral authorities – be they judges, bishops or charity directors – who advocate taking in more migrants is this: even if we admitted twice as many as the most welcoming would ever dare to admit, for every one we let in another one hundred – just as miserable, just as destitute and just as deserving of pity – would be pressing their faces against the barbed wire.


An ocean of sorrow we created

What are the common threads running through these top ten source countries? All but Sudan, Eritrea and Gambia are victims of terrorism and civil war in which Western intervention has had a significant influence. Syria had no refugees before the civil war started. The rebels were supported, some say militarily (and I would agree, more in a future blog) some say just morally, by the West. The US and the UK’s ally, Saudi Arabia, makes no secret of its support for the rebels. Regime change in Syria is a goal for the UK, the US and their local allies. The civil war through which this regime change is being attempted is the cause of the Syrian refugee crisis. Iraq was invaded by the US and its allies. So was Afghanistan. The terrorists in Pakistan are closely linked to those in Afghanistan, and were nurtured with US blessing to undermine the Soviet Union. And the Madrassas in which the lunatic Pakistani, Afghan and sundry other fundamentalists are schooled are funded by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States – all allies of the US. Al Shabab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria are, respectively, Al Quaeda and ISIS affiliates who receive funds from the Gulf States allied to the West. And the terrorists in Mali are a spillover from the conflict in Libya, where regime change was also supported by the West. Bottom line: in all but three of the countries which are the top ten sources of migrants, the West’s seemingly idealistic attempts to bring democracy and regime change has been a significant cause of the chaos and bloodshed which is making people flee.

Even Sudan and Eritrea are not to be entirely exempted from this thread. Both are countries in which US supported secession has taken place. The West supported Southern Sudan’s secession from the North. I thought the Sudanese regime was appalling and glad the South escaped, but it is clear that the management of the country after independence has not been a success. And the dictatorial ruler of Eritrea, Isaias Afewerki, established independence for Eritrea from Ethiopia with American blessing in 1993. That leaves little Gambia as the only exception – unless something else comes up!

Another glaring common thread is corruption, much of which to the benefit of Western interests. The role of corruption across many countries in creating the misery which pushes hopeless people to support fundamentalists and terrorists is analysed by Sarah Chayes in her masterpiece Thieves of State (2015). The fortune made by Halliburton from Iraq is by now notorious. Frank Ledwidge’s Investment in Blood (2013) gives a good account of the profiteering in Afghanistan. Pakistan is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Although this is ostensibly low level baksheesh benefiting local politicians, bureaucrats and powerful families, this upper class does clearly derive some protection and sponsorship from the West dating back to its involvement in the Cold War. Nigeria is also one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and Western interests have been complicit in significant amounts of that corruption, particularly in the oil sector. Mali is a former French colony, in all of which, one way or another, France finds a way to turn a Euro. The best example of this is Niger, another source of migrants which didn’t make it into the top ten. The country’s uranium mine was acquired by EDF on very favorable terms, and has done little to profit the people of that country. Niger is an excellent illustration of the template for how corruption can benefit Western interests. It is cheaper to bribe the ruling classes in Niger and let them live a life of luxury than to pony up the full price of a uranium mine. Wikileaks have released documents showing similar neo-colonial corruption involving France’s Areva nuclear operator in another former French colony, the Central African Republic. All over Africa, corrupt governments have their hands on important services such as electricity and telecoms, without which aspiring young Africans can’t start businesses or get jobs.

The photos in the EU press releases celebrating the aid package will focus in on the schoolchildren happily learning due to the EU’s largesse. The corrupt government official who took a 30% cut will be out of camera shot.

Bottom line: the poverty which causes migrants to attempt the dangerous journey is caused in large part by corruption in which the West is complicit and of which entities in the West are beneficiaries.

Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo in her very good Dead Aid (2009) describes  the trade barriers which prevent African countries from exporting to Europe and the USA. Moyo argues that aid packages – of which the EU’s recent one is an example – are part of the problem, keeping Africa in a state of dependency, and that opening trade barriers would enable African countries to become more independent. These trade barriers are there to protect European or other Western industries, particularly agriculture. In the Ivory Coast, another former French colony, a law passed as condition for the country’s independence prevents the Ivorians from making their own chocolate, thus reducing them to exporting the raw material, not the finished product. Bottom line: the West contributes to the poverty and helplessness of many of the source countries for migration by preventing them from having access to its markets.

Talk is cheap, and so are sentiments

City financier Terry Smith, famous for his exposé of accounting chicanery in Accounting for Growth (1991) and currently manager of the third best performing fund over five years in the Investment Association’s Global Sector (Smith’s fund invests in seasoned, cash generative companies while the top two funds invested in high risk biotech stocks), which beat the market by a compound annual rate of 13% over five years, also found time to run a blog (formerly at http://www.terrysmithblog.com/ now sadly no longer live) in which he made many points which would be useful to bear in mind in this debate (he eventually stopped blogging because of the controversy caused by his forthright views). One of my favorite sayings of his is that it’s wrong “to make promises to people that you can’t keep.” The judges, QCs, legal professors, bishops et al. have impressive titles. But their letters are just grand standing. They are making promises they can’t keep.

The West is directly and indirectly the cause of much of the chaos and poverty which in turn is causing the enormous movements of migration we are facing. My argument has been that it is completely unrealistic to try to accommodate these vast numbers of people. But what can realistically be expected of us is to stop meddling abroad in the way we do and causing chaos in those countries through our misguided or cynical attempts at regime change – because that is one of the sources of the problem. And we could also – though it would be difficult – stop sponsoring the clientelistic relationships with former European colonies and other countries in the West’s sphere of influence in which Western interests – government or commercial – make money from corruption and inefficient businesses which hold back development and keep people poor. And we could remove trade barriers with African countries so that their people make money in their own homes by exporting to us, rather than having to migrate. If any of our borders should be open, it is our trade borders.

In the final analysis what I find most offensive about the “Migrants Welcome” policy is that it is the media friendly face of an odious Western practice. Create chaos in the world through foreign meddling, corruption and protectionism. Then make media friendly but ultimately meaningless efforts to find solutions to the chaos you created, usually with the “assistance” of highly paid Western NGO workers. Welcoming the migrants who are victims of the chaos we sow is just such a media friendly, but ultimately meaningless, policy.