Home / Comment / In depth

Refugee Week: A Different Reflection – Do we like what we see?

Refugee Week: A Different Reflection – Do we like what we see?

Part five of our blog series to mark Refugee Week 2018, by Jonathan Thomas, 22/06/2018

If you are interested in this series you may be interested in our forthcoming event on migration and the common good and our recent collection of essays on ethics and migration.

Interested by this? Share it on social media. Join our monthly e–newsletter to keep up to date with our latest research and events. And check out our Supporter Programme to find out how you can help our work.

Who can fathom the courage and desperation that motivated Jose Matada, on his 27th birthday, to seek to escape his life in Africa and stow away in the wheels of an international flight from Luanda to Heathrow. He fell to his death over Mortlake, as the plane lowered its wheels to land. It was a Sunday morning. He was found by two churchgoers. He was an economic migrant.

Faith based groups (FBGs) have not just done a wonderful job in welcoming refugees. They have made a phenomenal contribution to the system of international refugee protection: from the creation of the legal underpinnings of human rights through to advocacy for, and delivery of, refugee resettlement schemes, integration and more. But Refugee Week is a time for reflection. And it is with some reluctance that my own reflection has led to this conclusion; that many FBGs’ fixation with welcoming refugees is now part of the problem, not the solution, to the major ethical migration question facing the world, and most particularly Europe. Why? And what do I mean?

The American philosopher and social scientist Jason Brennan has argued “If you do not advocate open immigration, any claim to be concerned about social justice or the well being of the poor is mere pretense”. The World Bank calculates that allowing a 3% rise in rich countries’ labour force through relaxing immigration restrictions would result in gains to poor–country citizens of $300 billion, nearly 5x current levels of global foreign aid. Economists calculate that open borders would double world GDP, but even the gain from just eight weeks working in the US equals that of a lifetime of microcredit in Bangladesh.

These figures both explain why some are economically so motivated to move, whilst posing the ethical question why should the lottery of country of birth so determine someone’s life outcome? What is the moral basis for restricting their chances of a dignified existence? The economist Michael Clemens reminds us:

“Migrants did not choose what country they were born in. And the people primarily enforcing [immigration restrictions] are intended to be people born in rich countries, who could never be subject to those policies. It is certainly ethically problematic for people with birthright access to the high paying jobs to take actions deliberately harming others, safe in the knowledge that those policies could never be applied to themselves.”

That is an economist speaking, not an FBG. Of course more permissive migration rules would create significant challenges. But why are so few FBGs engaging with the question of “the moral case for allowing as much migration as we can bear” (as the open borders advocate Vipul Naik phrased it) or the broader impact of restrictive migration controls, instead just focusing their attention on refugees who have arrived in their country?

This focus, coupled with the narrow definition of ‘forced migration’ which the Global North states increasingly use to keep migrants away, creates a good/bad migrant divide. This harms the case of the 90% of migrants who are not refugees, does nothing to further the case for better opportunities for the have–nots of the world, and does not necessarily even protect refugees, many of whom get tarred with the brush of being economic migrants. Government forces bomb your shop; are you a refugee or an economic migrant? You flee for your life but are not allowed to work to support yourself so move on: are you then a refugee or an economic migrant?

In the UK, focusing on refugees addresses the needs of a relatively small number. 10% of global migrants are refugees. Only 10% of those refugees make it to the Global North. And only a tiny portion of those are allowed anywhere near the UK. The laudable Vulnerable Person Resettlement Scheme is vanishingly small in the context of what is needed, even for refugees.

Many FBGs openly discriminate against non–refugee migrants, refusing to assist whatever their situation even when they do come across them. At the same time as they accuse of discrimination those who do not welcome refugees. This is tragic. Where is the Good Samaritan or the global solidarity in that?

But the real tragedy may be yet to come. It is estimated that, by 2050, there will be 600 million sub–Saharan African working age adults unable to find work in their own country. Many of these will move. Likely northwards, eventually. Matada had tried to build a life in five different African countries before his fateful decision to head to Europe.

Are we going to let these people rain out of the sky? Or perish in ever greater numbers in the Med? Or to prevent this happening will we build out the system we have begun to construct in Libya, in Sudan, funding dubious regimes to aggressively prevent transit; constraining, detaining and consigning migrants to their hopeless existence? What will the response of FBGs be? To shrug their shoulders and celebrate Refugee Week?  

It is impractical to open the borders to all these people. But the practicalities of closing them are also unclear; the level of state controls and violence likely required would dwarf today’s already fierce immigration restrictions, and may well be unpalatable to all but the most rabidly anti–immigrant factions of the Global North democracies. Nor can we solve the problem through development; aid or trade – all evidence points to development increasing emigration, for decades; look at Mexico.

There are potential approaches which are beginning to be floated as to how migration could be shaped for mutual benefit. But that needs to start soon; once the flood is in full flow it will be too late. And as a global problem it needs a global approach. International FBGs are one of the few forces that can realistically help achieve this; that have sufficient influence to advocate, organise and build understanding and support. But they will not do so if they continue to fixate on the narrow band of refugees.

There is hope however:

“The migratory experience often makes people more vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and violence … We are speaking about millions of migrant workers, male and female – and among these particularly men and women in irregular situations … What is required is the promotion of an integral human development of migrants, exiles and refugees. … joined to the right of being able to emigrate, as well as the right to not be constrained to emigrate, namely the right to find in one’s own homeland the conditions necessary for living a dignified life … We can no longer sustain unacceptable economic inequality, which prevents us from applying the principle of the universal destination of the earth’s goods. We are all called to undertake processes of apportionment which are respectful, responsible and inspired by the precepts of distributive justice. We need, then, to find ways by which all may benefit from the fruits of the earth, not only to avoid the widening gap between those who have more and those who must be content with the crumbs, but above all because it is a question of justice, equality and respect for every human being. One group of individuals cannot control half of the world’s resources. We cannot allow for persons and entire peoples to have a right only to gather the remaining crumbs … Ensuring justice means also reconciling history with our present globalized situation, without perpetuating mind–sets which exploit people and places, a consequence of the most cynical use of the market in order to increase the wellbeing of the few … Every migrant is a human person who, as such, possesses fundamental, inalienable rights that must be respected by everyone and in every circumstance. Today more than ever, it is necessary to affirm the centrality of the human person, without allowing immediate and ancillary circumstances, or even the necessary fulfilment of bureaucratic and administrative requirements, to obscure this essential dignity.” (The Pope, 21 February 2017)

Welcoming refugees on its own does nothing to challenge the current restrictive system for managing international migration, with all its attendant horrors; in fact it cements that system. The difficult thing is to change the system. That cannot happen without FBGs, but it does not look like that is happening any time soon. That those FBGs may eventually find themselves on the wrong side of history will be of little solace for those untold millions they could, and should, have tried to help.

The views expressed in this publication are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Social Market Foundation.

Image by Punghi under a Shutterstock License.

Jonathan Thomas

Jonathan Thomas

Jonathan Thomas is the Migration Researcher at the Social Market Foundation.

Watch, listen to or read more from Jonathan Thomas

Posted 22 June 2018

British Values, Immigration, Politics, Refugee Crisis


See all


See all

In the news

See all


See all

Get regular email updates on our latest research and events.

Please confirm your subscription in the email we have sent you.

Want to keep up to date with the latest news, reports, blogs and events from Theos? Get updates direct to your inbox once or twice a month.

Thank you for signing up.