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Europe’s Refugee Crisis and the Fallacy of Composition
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By David Thornton

Europe is currently experiencing a refugee crisis on a scale not seen since WWII.  According to an estimate by Human Rights Watch, over 886,000 people made the perilous journey to Europe through the Mediterranean in the period between January 1 and November 30, 2015.[1]  Despite the recent implementation of a ceasefire in Syria, which appears less like a predicate to peace than a recalibration of battlefield dynamics,[2] the flow of refugees into Europe is likely to continue in the foreseeable future.

EU policymakers have so far responded to the crisis with an individual and disparate set of immigration policies.  Whereas some states, such as Germany and Sweden, have chosen to generously increase their migrant intakes, others, notably France and Denmark, have cited security concerns and the threat to national identity as reasons to restrict their refugee intakes.

This lack of cooperation has led to calls for a more collective European policy response.  In August, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, stated that “it is clear that Europe has the capacities and the size needed to meet the challenges, assuming that it shows unity and jointly assume this responsibility.”[3]  Similarly, in October Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel underscored the need for a common approach to the crisis, warning that the EU should not “succumb to the temptation of falling back into acting in nationalistic terms.”[4]

While such discourse is an important step on the path to EU cooperation, it must also be coupled with an explanation about why cooperation is a practical necessity.  To be certain, a clear understanding of the practical necessity for cooperation will be a fundamental prerequisite to any future effort to reform Europe’s antiquated and clearly inadequate Common European Asylum System (CEAS), currently the only existing policy framework for determining asylum applications within the EU.

The practical need for cooperation can be understood by examining the problem through a collective lens.  Viewed in relative isolation, hard-line policies appear effective insofar as they restrict the number of refugees entering a country.  However, when assessed together with more open immigration policies, they contribute towards a ‘fallacy of composition.’  The fallacy of composition holds that what is true for one part of a whole is not true for the whole.  To illustrate with an analogy, if one person in a cinema stands up, they will have an unobstructed view of the screen.  Yet if everyone stands up, no one will have a better view of the screen and everyone will ultimately be worse off.

This logic can be extended to Europe’s refugee crisis.  Assuming that the flow of refugees is in the near term inevitable, the concurrent adoption of both open and closed immigration policies, taken in relative isolation from one another, serves only to direct the flow of refugees into certain countries, and therefore does nothing to address the broader problem facing Europe as a whole.  In other words, while a closed immigration policy may appear effective for the countries that adopt them, when assessed through the prism of the EU in aggregate, they are far less effective and indeed counterproductive because they magnify the burden placed on countries with more open immigration policies.

The fallacy of composition, and the burden it imposes on countries with open immigration policies, can be plainly seen in the case of Sweden.  In 2015, Sweden received 1,667 asylum applications per 100,000 of its own population.[5]  This figure stands in stark contrast with France, the EU’s third largest economy, which received only 100 asylum applications per 100,000 of its own population – a figure presumably due to France’s strict border controls.[6]

This kind of ill-proportioned burden sharing has placed extreme strain on Sweden’s economy.  The Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions has indicated that local municipalities will need to increase tax rates by 2 percent in order to adequately manage the costs imposed by refugees.[7]  To this end, the Swedish government has recently stated its intention to apply for activation of the relocation mechanism, which, if granted, would exempt it from processing new asylum applications for a period dictated by the European Commission.

International migration is, by definition, a global phenomenon.  Thus, if Europe is to effectively deal with the flow of refugees beset on it by instability in the Middle East, there must be a more concerted effort by EU leaders to recognize the fallacy of composition and use it as a justification for adopting collective policy solutions congruent with the universal and interconnected nature of the problem.  The lives of millions of refugees, as well as the social and economic stability of Europe, depend on it.

David Thornton is a recent graduate of the Master of International Relations program at the University of Melbourne. 

[1] “Europe’s Migrant Crisis,” Human Rights Watch, accessed February 26, 2016.  https://www.hrw.org/tag/europes-migration-crisis

[2] See Samer Abboud, “Syria War: What you need to know about the ceasefire,” Al Jazeera, accessed February 28, 2016. “ http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/02/syria-war-ceasefire-160228063752872.html

[3] Quoted in “UN refugee agency chief urges Europe to formulate collective response to migrant crisis,” UN News Centre, accessed February 28, 2016. http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=51731#.VtVfyL5GzFI

[4] “Germany’s Merkel warns EU against migrant crisis nationalism,” Reuters, accessed February 28, 2016. http://www.reuters.com/article/europe-migrants-merkel-idUSL8N1273UG20151007

[5] “Migrant Crisis: Migration to Europe explained in seven charts,” BBC, accessed February 25, 2016.  http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34131911

[6] Ibid.

[7] Quoted in Lawrence Solomon, “Lawrence Solomon: Sweden’s governments collapsing under weight of refugees,” Financial Post, accessed February 25, 2016.  http://business.financialpost.com/fp-comment/lawrence-solomon-swedens-governments-collapsing-under-weight-of-refugees

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