I’ve spent a long time wondering about thee European refugee/migrant situation. Part of my interest is that I live in one of the top-ten contributing countries. I don’t know any young man here who wouldn’t be happy to go to West, and I can’t imagine a family that wouldn’t love to have a wage-earner living in the West. Ten years ago a study here showed that about a quarter of the economy was cash remittances: money sent back into the country by people living abroad. Conversely, the fighting that is going on here is localized, and always transitory. Villages might conceivably empty for as much as a few months, but there is no, e.g., emptying of the countryside in a way that is visible in the cities. If there are mass migrations of people in this country, I have never seen evidence of it.

Based on these numbers from the UNHCR, we have 69% men, 13% women, and 18% children. Glancing down the top-10 list of countries, I feel confident in predicting that the refugee women are typically not traveling alone. My guess is that the women and children are typically accompanied by men. If that is the case, then we can estimate 56% of the men are traveling alone. (These are estimates; I would love to have data disaggregated by age, marital status, and country of origin. My prediction would be that, aside from the Syrians, the refugees are healthy young men looking for employment.) So, from some cultural experience and these numbers, I feel that we are looking at a mass economic migration. That is, these people have not given up on their security situation; they’ve given up on their economic situation.

I don’t blame them at all. I’ve lived in the developing world for about six years, and I see very little reason for optimism, for most people. I don’t doubt that national GDPs will increase, but as is strikingly obvious from visiting a country like India, for example, that even very highly developed economies can leave large swathes of the population behind. Certainly my experience in this country—and I suspect this is typical—is that employment is generally available only through kinship or patronage. One does not simply move to the city to work in a factory, and get ahead that way.

These economic and social realities create interesting effects, such as the one noted in this blog post (backup up by a proper peer-reviewed research article): “The vast majority of Haitians who have escaped poverty have done so by leaving the country.” This implies that the economic problems lie not, for the most part, with Haitians, but with Haiti. That is, the basic problem seems to be that these people are stuck in bad situations. Take them out of the bad situation, and their lives get better. (This is even a problem at the cultural level: most immigrants don’t change their cultural beliefs and practices, or even their language, in the first generation. It’s a matter of being in a specifically bad situation. One thinks of being in a poorly-built house: there is a point at which you just have to give up and start over.)

So what is the difference between a refugee and a migrant? This foundational UNHCR document defines a refugee as a person who,

owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.

Of course “fear” is not defined, but there are entire ethnic groups that are persecuted (to one degree or another). There are entire ethnic groups for whom it would be putting it mildly to say that they are unable to avail themselves of the protection of their government. There are moreover millions of people whose economic prospects, viewed from a Western perspective, are a nightmare. That is real. I know plenty of people who meet this definition.

Given these facts, and the interpretation I’ve put on them, it would be easy to say: well, we can’t employ them all, so let’s turn them all away. But I think that there are positive things to be done. One thing would be to call a spade a spade, and acknowledge that for many people, this is an economic crisis. It’s not a coincidence that they’re trying to get to Germany, for instance, and not to some nearer country. I think that a positive government response would be to open the borders in a responsible way: to allow migration for economic purposes. We could assign temporary visas based on a lottery system, and let people make their own travel arrangements. A separate track can remain open for people who want to come with their families as well. But there could be a humane system to allow menial laborers to come in to the country to earn money. (And it’s not as if this is some new idea: countries such as Singapore and the United Arab Emirates rely on immigrant labor.) This could also allow for protection of worker rights, which can deal a blow to human trafficking. And—not that these are people I am typically interested in mollifying—I think it would take away some oxygen from the newly-revitalized right-wing parties: it’s easy to work oneself into a frenzy over utopian policies; it’s much harder to do it over sane ones.

The big picture problem, as I see is it, is a global imbalance of aspirations and means. Media gives aspirations of wealth to all people of the world: from the richest to the poorest. Big house, fancy car, beautiful wife, successful children. In a country like the United States, you can buy into that and run the rat race—not that I recommend it, but the option is there. In most countries of the world, that option is not there. I believe that frustrated ambition is the driving force behind most of the particularly realizations of sin in the world today: religious extremism, mob violence, violence against women, and so forth. If we close off our borders, it’s like clogging a pressure cooker. If we adopt sensible policies in regard to economic migration, we can let out some of the steam.