Private money, public good?


Sometimes you have to sacrifice your sacred cows. I believe in public goods; in collective action and in solidarity. I don’t think charity – dependency on the benevolence of others – is an adequate substitute for welfare that recognizes the rights of the citizen.   I want to #savethenhs, and keep the market out of our universities. And when it comes to migration – well, migration is all about the state.

But what happens when the state fails to act, and in doing so condemns thousands of men, women and children to poverty, persecution, and death? Should that state have the right to stop others stepping in to fill the ethical void left by their realpolitik? Faced with the EU’s political paralysis over the Mediterranean migrant crisis, I find myself wondering whether private refugee resettlement might offer a possible answer.

This isn’t a radical idea: Canada already has a private refugee sponsorship programme. Since 1979, this initiative has helped to resettle over 200,000 cases in addition to those supported by the government. This programme permits individuals and groups to sponsor refugees from places like Syria, Afghanistan or Somalia, putting up the financial capital necessary to underwrite refugee resettlement. Many sponsorship agreement holders are religious organizations and charities – but groups of five private citizens can also come together to sponsor a refugee directly. Sponsors commit to supporting a newly resettled refugee for the first year of their stay, or until they are financially independent.

There’s much for a neo-liberal, small state, “strivers not skivers” politician to like in the idea. Under such a scheme the state does not relinquish the power to police its borders: the government still vets the applicants, assesses the credentials of potential sponsors, sets the rules. But private refugee resettlement transfers the financial risk involved from the public purse to the private sector. In this it echoes the “big society” rhetoric beloved of David Cameron, substituting philanthropy for state responsibility.

Of course, there are inherent dangers in promoting ideas that sit uneasily with a commitment to public action. After all, once states outsource humanitarian rescue, what next? And what starts as a complement to government efforts can quickly become a substitute – Canada’s current government, for instance, has made changes to its private sponsorship programme that have attracted ferocious criticism from many refugee sponsors.

think there are also minds that could be won by turning resettlement from a distant government programme into something more tangible and immediate. When resettlement is a private action, community groups and individual citizens make a commitment to engage directly with refugees, and an explicit promise to protect the state from any related costs. The evidence shows that refugees and asylum seekers in the abstract are feared; made into flesh and bone they are frequently offered a warmer welcome by the communities they live in. Private refugee sponsorship would allow refugee advocacy to move from words to action, from defensive reaction to proactive engagement.

All the stranger, then, that there has been so little discussion of the potential role private refugee sponsorship could play in building an adequate response to the Mediterranean crisis. Perhaps it’s because so many of those who fight for refugee rights are the same activists who are leading the protest against austerity cuts, and are inherently uneasy about how to approach private sector incolvement. Can you fight privatization and call for private involvement in refugee resettlement at the same time? Perhaps it’s because such programmes would inevitably be limited in numbers – so they can’t possibly hope to offer a solution to the millions of wretched souls waiting in exile. But the idea of that “total solution” is somewhere between a pipedream and an excuse. Refugee crises like Syria will only be solved piecemeal.

This is not my ideal. I would like to live in a world where the right to seek asylum is not in doubt. I would like to live in a world in which my government, faced with the human misery of millions who are prepared to drown in the Mediterranean in search of freedom, makes no mutterings about net migration figures, but simply offers up 10,000 resettlement places, and then 10,000 more.

But that is not the world I live in. The world I live in is narrow, mean-spirited and anxious when it comes to many things, including migration. Meanwhile, migrants drown and refugees flee for the lives. So we need new ideas, and we need them now. Sometimes these can come from unexpected places. Privatized refugee resettlement is not the ideal answer: but asking European governments the question would at least strip away the excuse that helping refugees is just too expensive in an age of austerity. So is it time to stop arguing that states should do more to help refugees, and instead start persuading them to simply open up refugee resettlement to the private sector? Surely that’s better than no humanitarian rescue at all?

Read more on why I think business has a role to play in solving refugee crises here