Saturday, July 05, 2014

Allocating Asylum

Here's an interesting moral controversy (which my brother brought to my attention).  Suppose that:
(1) There are more English-speaking refugees seeking asylum than there are available "positions" for refugees in your country (let's call it "NZ") given current policy.
(2) Migrants (including refugees) who speak English are more easily integrated into NZ than those who don't already speak the language. Thus, a greater number of English-speaking refugees (only) could be accepted into the country at no greater cost or institutional strain relative to current policy.

We clearly have very strong moral reasons to want to be able to help as many refugees as possible.  Probably, current policy is unconscionable and we should be letting in anyone who is in a genuine state of desperate need. But given that this ideal is not going to happen, should we think it at least an improvement upon the status quo to introduce a policy of letting in a greater number of refugees all of whom are English-speaking?

Assuming all else is equal, this strikes me as a clear improvement.  We get to help more people, which is a good thing -- it's not as though the people being helped are in any way less worthy because they happen to speak English. Helping the larger number is better than helping the smaller number.

I can think of three objections:

One is to worry that English-speaking refugees might be more privileged, or less in need of aid, than non-English speakers.  But while it's plausible that English-speakers on the whole tend to be relatively privileged (e.g. by virtue of being more likely to live in wealthy English-speaking countries), I'm not sure that we have any reason to expect this pattern to extend to the refugee population.  Presumably for an asylum-seeker to qualify as a genuine "refugee" they must be in a genuinely desperate situation--whatever language(s) they happen to speak.  Once you're talking about a situation that's that desperate, I'm not sure there's much room for further distinguishing between "more" and "less needy" refugees.  (But even if there is, I'd need to hear more about why we should expect language to correlate at all reliably with need in this context.)

The second, perhaps more common, objection is the knee-jerk worry that there seems something superficially "unfair" or objectionably "discriminatory" about favouring English-speaking asylum seekers.  It sets off our anti-racist alarm bells.  Given historical abuses, those are good alarm bells to have -- but they should serve to prompt closer, careful inspection, not blind dismissal.  In this case, I think closer inspection clearly reveals that this would not be an instance of objectionable discrimination. After all, it is not motivated by any failure to grant an equal consideration of interests to all.  It's just a situation where -- for contingent empirical reasons -- we're in a better position to help one population than another.

(As I'm inclined to instead think: what would be truly discriminatory, in the sense of failing to value all people's interests equally, would be to deliberately stick to a policy that does less good -- to merely help some a little, when you could have instead helped others even more. That is, in effect, to value the few over the many. In this particular case, a de jure policy of "non-discrimination" between candidate refugees would seem to actually constitute a form of moral discrimination against the interests of the English-speaking refugees who could otherwise be helped in greater numbers.)

A third, more sophisticated objection is to grant that all the above is fine in theory, but in practice many citizens are xenophobic and enshrining a preference for "English-speakers" in law would -- despite the above good intentions -- be perceived by many as a symbolic victory for (and official affirmation of) xenophobia, and that this could have detrimental effects on the political culture. (Any sociologists in the audience able to speak to the plausibility of this concern?  I gather that NZ law already favours English-speakers for general migration, so I'd be surprised if an extension of this to refugees were to make much of a difference -- especially if the utilitarian justification for the policy was clearly communicated to the public.)

Have I missed any relevant considerations?  How do you think we should weigh the clear and direct benefits of the proposed policy change (for individual refugees) with the speculative indirect harms (of possibly reinforcing xenophobia in the broader culture)?


  1. You should also factor in that refugees who more easily integrate into NZ can expect to have a higher quality of life than those for whom integration is comparatively more difficult. So, not only do you help as many refugees as possible (given policy constraints) but you do so in a way that ensures those refugees admitted are better off than those refugees not admitted would have been had they in fact been admitted.


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