Politics of Refugee Crisis: Why There's No Science to Resettlement

barbed wire with migrants in the background.
(Image credit: Zoltan Major / Shutterstock.com)

The European Union — and to a lesser extent, the United States — is struggling to come to an agreement about how to cope with tens of thousands of refugees fleeing Syria and other war-torn areas, mostly in the Middle East.

Various countries have opened their "gates" to specific numbers of these refugees. But what determines how wide a country will swing open their borders in a resource-limited world? Turns out, there's some science and a lot of politics involved. [How Many People Can Earth Support?]

Europe's borders

The challenge is exacerbated by debate over how many of the displaced are refugees, fleeing conflict and persecution, and how many are migrants, a term encompassing those who freely choose to leave their home countries. Technically, "refugee" is an official designation, and it's one that a person can lose if they leave a refugee camp in Lebanon, for example, seeking a way into Europe. The lack of official status doesn't mean a person isn't fleeing conflict. It can also be difficult to differentiate between leaving by choice and being coerced. An analysis by the news magazine The Economist found, however, that more than 90 percent of Syrians who applied to the European Union for asylum in the first quarter of 2015 were recognized as legitimate refugees, as were 90 percent of Eritreans and nearly 90 percent of Iraqis.     

Immigration isn't a new issue for Europe; after the devastation of World War II, many European countries had generous immigration policies, said Mabel Berezin, a sociologist at Cornell University.

Indeed, the EU even has the diplomatic equivalent of a big, red "emergency" button ready for the kind of situation it is facing now. Article 78 (3) of the EU's Lisbon Treaty grants that the European Council may adopt measures in the face of an emergency situation "characterized by the sudden inflow of nationals of third countries." However, any agreement on what those measures should be is currently stalled.

Some nations support a quota system, which would relocate asylum-seekers based on a formula taking into account a country's GDP, unemployment, population and previous acceptance of migrants. The idea might seem fair, even scientific, on its face. But it seems to have little influence on what's happening in the messy political sphere.

"The allocation numbers don't necessarily speak to the realities on the ground of this really horrific crisis," Berezin told Live Science.

On Sept. 14, the leaders of the EU agreed to voluntary resettlements of some 40,000 migrants, but left another 120,000 in Hungary, Italy and Greece in limbo. Meanwhile, Hungary has started a border crackdown, trying to keep new migrants out. It's a process of abandonment, said Alessandra Von Burg, a citizenship researcher at Wake Forest University. Migrants and refugees alike become "noncitizens," whose own states have evaporated or failed to provide for them, and there is nowhere they can go to regain the rights and protections normally provided to citizens.

"What we're seeing right now on the borders, what we're seeing right now in refugee camps, we're seeing all these instances where noncitizens are really left to cope on their own," Von Burg told Live Science.

Many Europeans have welcomed migrants with open arms; more than 10,000 Icelandic citizens, for example, signed a petition urging their government to accept more refugees than the 50 each year that it accepts now. This open streak, however, is accompanied by a rise in right-wing nationalism, said Berezin, who studies the emergence of these anti-immigration parties.

"If you look at vote shares of nationalist parties going back to the 1970s, you can see a very sharp increase in their political share of votes," Berezin said. The increase took off especially quickly in 2010, she said, after the 2008 economic downturn.

That downturn "created an immediate feeling of scarcity on a continent that had really had the perception of plenty," she said. Combined with the uncertainty of the Greek financial crisis, the influx of refugees is "almost like a perfect scenario for right-nationalist parties to really gain ground," Berezin said.

U.S. refugee admissions

In this political climate, it's easy to see why there's no scientific way to determine how countries should divide up refugees: Though there are real resource issues in processing tens of thousands of foreign nationals, the question of relocation is mostly political.

Refugee resettlement is a question of politics in the United States, as well. The United States has capped refugee admissions at 70,000 per year since 2013, 70 percent of all refugees resettled worldwide. There is no magic formula for determining these numbers, according to the State Department, and they fluctuate based on current conflicts. [Why Peace Is So Tricky for Humans]

The actual number admitted varies each year. The U.S. filled nearly all of those slots in 2014, for example, but accepted only 58,238 applications in 2013, according to State Department data.

Each year, the State Department determines not only the overall number of allowed refugees, but the proportion of refugees allowed in from each region, based on the current situation in each area. According to a Sept. 9 State Department briefing, Secretary of State John Kerry has suggested raising the admissions' cap for 2016. President Barack Obama, in turn, has called for the resettlement of at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in the United States next year.

Whatever the 2016 number, the change won't put much of a dent in the ongoing refugee crisis: According to a State Department official, it takes 18 months to two years to vet an asylum-seeker's claim. And as migrants continue to crowd into tiny boats for the dangerous trip across the Mediterranean, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has already registered more than 4 million Syrian refugees in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and North Africa alone.

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Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.