Switzerland does the same. According to news reports, asylum seekers arriving at the Swiss border are given an information sheet that tells them, “If you have property worth more than 1,000 Swiss francs [approximately 980 dollars] when you arrive at a reception centre you are required to give up these financial assets in return for a receipt.” Successful asylum seekers must give up 10 percent of their income for up to 10 years, or until they repay Switzerland approximately 15,000 US dollars.
Many observers have been outraged by the new Danish law. Some say it’s like the Nazi practice of confiscating Jewish property during World War II. Others mention the pain and humiliation of being searched and being forced to give up items of sentimental value — although the law’s defenders quickly point out that wedding rings are exempt from confiscation. Danish critics mention the relative wealth of the Danish state, and insist it can afford to be generous, and also that it has a history of doing so.
But what about the underlying moral question: Are nations entitled to reimbursement when they take in refugees, whether temporarily or for keeps? Let’s examine this step by step.
Refugees are victims of profound injustice
Two moral intuitions guide our initial responses to injustice. First, if I cause an injustice, I am responsible for remedying that injustice, unless doing so is impossible. Second, where people are suffering from injustice and the person or institution that caused their suffering can’t or won’t remedy it, others have a duty of rescue — especially (but not only) if doing so imposes few costs. But it is often difficult to identify whose duty this is.
If we lived in a just world, all nations would protect their citizens’ human rights. But that’s not our world. Refugees are just one result of injustice. Crucially, they didn’t cause their plight; rather, they are victims of profound injustice. Because their home nation cannot or will not protect even their basic human rights, they must migrate in search of protection. They are entitled to this protection, as all of us are, simply by virtue of being human; the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees makes clear that providing asylum to those in need is a duty held by all states, in common.
But here’s the difficult moral question: Who specifically should be required to bear the cost of remedying this injustice? Put differently, which states, and which citizens, should “pick up the slack” when the refugees’ own states do not?
Who should pay for that injustice?
Broadly, there are five answers to this question.
The first answer is the state that’s failing its citizens. The state that has caused the emigration of refugees – by engaging in civil war or persecution – should stop doing so, and compensate its victims directly. That again presumes a just world, of course. Maybe someday in the future, that sending state will compensate its victims. For instance, Germany continues to compensate victims of the Holocaust. But right now, that won’t happen.
A second answer is that any state or states implicated in forcing people to seek asylum should pick up the slack. This answer sometimes prompts observers to assign the United States the responsibility for refugees fleeing Afghanistan, since the U.S. launched a 2001 invasion that generated conditions forcing some to flee. But outside nations are not always guilty of creating insecurity, and furthermore, assigning full responsibility to outsiders may seem to absolve those who are actually engaging in violence and persecution.
A third answer is that bordering states ought to pick up the slack. Being closest to the crisis, they are presumably in a good position to understand and respond to the needs of those flowing in. And if they remain nearby, refugees can more easily return home once the crisis abates.
But nearby states are often the least able, materially and institutionally, to support a large influx of needy and vulnerable individuals. In fact, approximately 85 percent of the world’s 20 million refugees are harbored in poor and institutionally fragile, developing states. Almost two-thirds of these refugees live in so-called “protracted refugee situations,” forced to live in “temporary” homes outside of their home country, for an average of 17 years.
A fourth answer is that all human-rights-respecting states share the obligation. One way to distribute this obligation is with what are called “burden-sharing schemes,” which distribute the costs of sheltering and, if needed, resettling refugees among countries able to provide aid.
One way is to underwrite the states nearest the crisis, so that they have the means to care for the refugees harbored there. Another would be the way the E.U. has chosen: require a range of developed nations to take in some proportion of the refugees themselves. In this strategy, the burden of taking care of the refugees is distributed fairly, at least in principle.
In our ideal world, how would this burden be distributed? We might consider the wealth of each contributing state; whether the nearby states have the capacity needed to successfully care for the refugees; whether the refugees and the potential host nation are a good cultural “fit” or mismatched in ways that might make both guests and hosts uncomfortable; and so on. Nations might then be asked to contribute financially or by offering physical refuge to asylum seekers. A World Migration Organization might take on the job of making these assessments in the future.
But in the real world, a potential problem is suggested by the fact that the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, which takes on so much of the burden for aiding refugees on behalf of all states, is chronically underfunded. A future World Migration Organization might similarly lack the resources and support it needs to distribute the burden of supporting resources fairly.
A fifth answer is that refugees themselves should shoulder the cost, as far as they can. This is how the “jewelry bill” defenders justify their policies. The host state, they say, isn’t at fault for the refugees’ predicament; it didn’t violate their rights. In fact, the argument might go, because the host state is protecting the human rights of its own citizens, it’s already doing its fair share to protect human rights globally and shouldn’t have to pay for another country’s injustice. If all states followed suit, human rights globally would be respected.
Is it ethical to ask refugees to pay for the injustice they’ve suffered?
Can refugees legitimately be asked to shoulder the costs that they impose on their host states? That’s complicated. First, the data are ambiguous about how expensive refugees actually are for the countries that take them in. In many developed countries, resettled refugees quickly integrate and start contributing to the economy. Second, refugees already do shoulder some of the cost of resettling them in many developed states.
For example, both Canada and the United States often pay initial the transportation costs for refugees they have selected for resettlement, and then require refugees to repay the cost of their transportation, but only after they’re gainfully employed. Here’s the difference between the Canadian and American method and that of the Danish and Swiss: In Canada and the United States, refugees are asked to repay when they are able, and not when they have just arrived. They are not asked to hand over the valuables they managed to save as they escaped.
Still, it’s clear that some refugees will never be able to repay the cost of hosting and helping them, and will never become productive enough to improve their host country’s economy. Some have been so traumatized or otherwise injured that they will never really get on their feet again, even once they’re safe and their rights are secure. These individuals are entitled to refuge, even if they can never repay the costs they impose on host nations.
But if you believe that the victims of profound injustice shouldn’t have to pay for having been wronged, then none of this will seem moral.
So what’s the solution? There isn’t one. There is no one clear answer to the question of which nations, and which citizens, should pay the cost of protecting the human rights of refugees.