Leaky Boats to Fortress Europe – A Permissible Choice for Parents?
The way to Europe across the Mediterranean is by far the deadliest migrant route in the world. According to UNHCR reports, 20,374 people have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean over the last six years. In the same period, 2,203,154 people arrived in the EU via this route. On the basis of these numbers, the risk of dying during a crossing is as high as 0.93%. A significant number of those who attempt the crossing are children. This has recently become the subject of criminal investigations in Greece. In a precedence case, Greek authorities have charged an Afghan asylum seeker with child endangerment after his son died when their boat capsized in the Aegean Sea. Human rights lawyers and activists decry such moves as “a direct attack on the right to seek asylum” and part of the EU’s strategy to deter refugees from entering the Union. Even though such criticisms are justified, the case raises an important moral question: Is it permissible to expose children to a significant risk of harm in the search for a better life? In this post, I want to show that it might often be permissible for refugees to expose their children to the risks of the crossing.
Let’s consider the options a refugee might face on the route via Turkey: leaving to the EU on a boat or staying put in Turkey. Opting to leave bears a risk of dying in a boat accident. Although the risks of lethal accidents are lower on the route across the Aegean Sea than for other routes across the Mediterranean, they are still non-negligible. There is also the risk of being prevented from entering Greece by the EU border agency. Even once a refugee is in the EU, her prospects remain uncertain. There is no guarantee that an application for asylum will be successful. However, for some, taking these risks pays off. They are able to build a new life in a host country and offer their children safety, an adequate standard of living, education and more hopeful prospects for the future.
Is it permissible to expose children to a significant risk of harm in the search for a better life?
The risks and chances of choosing the trip across the Mediterranean have to be weighed against the alternative option: staying in Turkey. Integration into Turkish society, including access to basic services, work permits and means of subsistence, is difficult. In an assessment of the situation of refugees in Turkey, Amnesty International concludes that “Turkey is not providing an environment where asylum-seekers and refugees can be assured of the ability to live in dignity.” A small number of refugees benefits from the UNHCR’s resettlement programme or the resettlement programme which forms part of the EU-Turkey deal of 2016. But effectively the chance of resettlement is zero for the vast majority of refugees.
Despite the risks involved in crossing the Mediterranean, many parents reasonably deem leaving to be better for their child than staying in Turkey – that is, it is deemed to be the option which best promotes their child’s wellbeing. For the discussion here, I will assume that people who want to promote their child’s wellbeing choose the option with the highest expected level of wellbeing. The expected wellbeing of an option depends on the level of wellbeing the child would have in each outcome and the likelihood of each possible outcome of the option. So why might someone think that, in circumstances such as these, choosing the option with the highest expected wellbeing is impermissible? One possible answer is that I should not exclusively be concerned with the promotion of wellbeing. My decision should give weight to further moral considerations. Because of these further moral considerations, leaving can be impermissible even if it is the option with the highest expected wellbeing among the alternatives. Let’s consider two arguments for this view.
The first argument is that it matters how I promote wellbeing. For example, it is usually worse to (risk) harming someone than to fail to save them from (a risk of) harm. Assume that my child has an illness that, untreated, is lethal in 1% of cases. She can get proper treatment only in the EU. I can choose between leaving for the EU, which will expose my child to a 1% risk of dying in the crossing, or staying in Turkey which risks her dying from her illness. If those two options have equal expected wellbeing, I should choose the option in which I fail to save from risk rather than the option in which I would be imposing risks.
What about cases in which the options differ in the wellbeing I can expect for my child? It cannot be true that I should always prefer the option in which I fail to save from a risk rather than the one in which I impose risk. After all, we routinely allow doctors to perform surgeries that pose non-negligible risks of causing harm. In the medical case, most think surgery is justified if and because it is expected to increase quality and/or length of life. So, the question is not whether I am ever permitted to choose risk imposition but rather when I am permitted to choose risk imposition over allowing risks.
[T]here is reason to think that [parents] should give special weight to better outcomes, namely those that secure basic human rights.
If we take seriously the idea that it matters how we promote wellbeing, we should risk harm only if the expected wellbeing of this option is significantly higher than the wellbeing we can expect when we allow a risk of harm. An alternative view is that we should first of all promote wellbeing. How we promote wellbeing is secondary. It matters only in cases in which two options are equal in their expected wellbeing. On this view, I would always be permitted to choose the option with higher expected wellbeing even if it means imposing risks.
The second argument is that worse outcomes should weigh more heavily in my decision than better outcomes. I should choose with caution and try to avoid the worst possible outcome rather than choose the option with the highest expected wellbeing. According to this precautionary approach, if the worst possible outcome of Option One is better than the worst possible outcome of Option Two, I should choose Option One. In short, I should choose as if the chance of better outcomes occurring is zero. For example, assume that staying in Turkey does not come with an increased risk to my child’s life but will mean that she experiences very low levels of wellbeing for many years. In that case, the precautionary approach tells me to stay in Turkey because the worst possible outcome of choosing to stay (low levels of wellbeing for many years) is better than the worst possible outcome of making the crossing (which is death).
This proposal is too radical. It would mean that as a parent I should keep my child in a safe room and never let her out. Although such isolation is not good for the child, it is still better than being run over by a car in the street. The example shows that at most a reasonable level of caution can be required lest all valuable activity be prohibited. A more plausible precautionary approach would suggest that I am required to treat the chances of a better outcome’s occurring as being lower than they actually are, but not to treat such outcomes as impossible. This way we give more, but not absolute, weight to the worst outcome.  On this less radical precautionary approach, I am permitted to send my child only if the caution-weighted expected wellbeing is higher for leaving than for staying. Since a cautious person deflates the likelihood of the better option, leaving will be permissible in fewer cases than if I compare the unweighted expected wellbeing of the options.
I want to challenge the idea that refugees should give more weight to worse outcomes. In fact, there is reason to think that they should give special weight to better outcomes, namely those that secure basic human rights. Why should one give special moral weight to outcomes that secure basic human rights? Our human rights set a certain minimum threshold below which no person should fall. If we cared about human rights only because they are conducive to wellbeing, there would be no need to give extra weight to outcomes that secure them. The importance of wellbeing is already accounted for if I choose the option that best promotes my child’s wellbeing. However, basic rights are valuable not just because they are conducive to wellbeing but also because they express the worth of the person. Outcomes in which rights are respected are particularly valuable because in such a state people are recognized to have a special dignity and equal standing among their fellow humans. This is valuable regardless of whether it increases wellbeing.
Outcomes in which rights are respected are particularly valuable because in such a state people are recognized to have a special dignity and equal standing among their fellow humans.
On this threshold approach, I should give special weight to outcomes at or above the threshold set by human rights. In order to account for this in my decision-making, I should act as if rights-respecting outcomes are more likely than they actually are. I may send my child on the risky journey if the rights-weighted expected wellbeing of leaving is higher than that of the alternative. Since a rights-respecting person inflates the likelihood of outcomes above the threshold, leaving will be permissible in more cases than if I choose the option with highest unweighted expected wellbeing.
This is the opposite of what the precautionary approach recommends. Instead of playing it safe, one may risk exposing a person to harm out of respect for her rights. The precautionary approach is reasonable if one already is above the threshold set by rights and wants to ensure that one does not fall below the threshold. It is unreasonable if one is below the threshold and choosing an option with a significant risk presents a way to rise above the threshold. In such cases, playing it safe will often condemn someone to a life that falls short of meeting the minimum standard set by human rights.
Consider again the scenario in which my child will have very low levels of wellbeing if we stay in Turkey. This low level would be better than being killed whilst crossing the sea. But, although the two options differ in the amount of wellbeing they are expected to secure for my child, the worst outcomes of the two options share the property of not being good enough. The best outcomes of the two options – being recognized as a refugee in Europe or living a difficult life in Turkey – differ qualitatively since only the former is above the threshold. If human rights do indeed set a relevant threshold below which no one should fall, then we should care that people reach this threshold. With its focus on the worst outcome, the precautionary approach will often prevent this. Thus, when choosing for my child who is currently below the threshold, I may give the outcome above the threshold special weight.
To sum up and conclude: I started from the assumption that parents choose what they reasonably believe best promotes their child’s wellbeing. They choose the option with the highest expected wellbeing. Granted, sometimes leaving will have lower unweighted expected wellbeing than staying. In that case, parents might choose to stay because this best promotes their child’s wellbeing. But promoting wellbeing is not all that matters morally. Once the rights-respecting outcomes are given proper moral weight in the decision-making, sending one’s child on a risky journey might turn out to be permissible even if this option has less unweighted expected wellbeing than the alternative. On the view I suggested, it actually turns out that a larger number of parents than those who actually choose this option would be permitted to send their child on a risky journey.
 Amnesty International, ‘A Blueprint for Despair. Human Rights Impact of the EU-Turkey Deal’ (London, 2017), 14.  Less than 40,000 persons out of a total refugee population of more than 3.5 million have been resettled over the last four years from Turkey through the UNHCR programme. 26,835 refugees haven been resettled in the first four years after the EU-Turkey deal in 2016.  For discussion of this idea see Lara Buchak, ‘Taking Risks behind the Veil of Ignorance’, Ethics 127, no. 3 (April 2017): 630–33.
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