The Dark Incentives That Led to a Refugee Tragedy

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For a deeper investigation of abuse and corruption in the global migration system, read “My Fourth Time, We Drowned,” by Sally Hayden, which won the 2022 Orwell Prize. (I must admit, however, that I recommend it in partial violation of my own rules about not suggesting books until I’ve read them: The chapters I’ve made it through are excellent, but it is so harrowing that I keep having to take breaks, so I have not yet finished it.)

Other approaches, which would reduce cruelty without violating international law, are possible.

In April of last year, I visited a Ukrainian refugee center in a Polish stadium. It had been set up in just a few weeks to handle the influx of refugees from Ukraine, who were mostly women and children fleeing the Russian invasion.

It was clean, efficiently organized and full of helpful volunteers who spoke Ukrainian, Russian and Polish, to assist with form-filling and general guidance. Within a few hours, Ukrainians who had fled their home the day before could apply for and immediately receive legal status in the country, register for refugee benefits, and open a bank account. Outside, World Central Kitchen was giving out free hot meals.

Other European countries quickly set up similar programs to offer shelter and services to those fleeing the conflict.

The effort required tremendous resources, of course. But punitive, militarized border enforcement is also expensive, as are migrant detention centers and adversarial immigration hearings. The European Union has allocated hundreds of millions of euros since 2015 to address migration across the central Mediterranean route alone.

And programs like the one I witnessed in Poland, which create a sense of control and order, seem to be far more politically palatable to voters.

It is true that, as I wrote in a column at the time, Ukrainians were especially welcome because of a very specific set of circumstances: not only were they white and Christian, but they were also fleeing a common enemy in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. But in Britain, a program to welcome people from Hong Kong after the Chinese crackdown also barely made a political ripple, even though the government estimated that as many as 300,000 people would be able to apply.


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