Refugees and credible commitments

A couple of days ago The Telegraph published an article by Suzanne Evans (the Ukip deputy chairman) concerning whether or not the UK should agree to take the 3,000 unaccompanied children that are currently in the Calais jungle. The main argument is embodied in the paragraph from the article:

Take 3,000 from the jungle and 3,000 more will arrive within days. Then another 3,000 will arrive days after that. How many will die on the journey? How many will be terrified, starved, subjected to life-threatening diseases and horribly abused on the way to France? How many of the older kids will be exposed to hard drugs while they’re in the camp, which appears to be run by louts at best and hardened criminals at worst? The fact is, the more we take in, the more children will be abandoned to the cruel sea and the even crueler people traffickers. Is this really what we want?

In other words, Evans is saying that if the UK was to accept the current 3,000, then that would only encourage more families to make the journey, with subsequent risks to those families.

A family’s decision whether or not to attempt the journey to the UK comes down to a balance between “pull” factors (e.g. the chance of getting into the UK) and “push” factors (e.g. the danger involved in not making the journey and remaining in their home countries). Evans assumes that the UK accepting 3,000 children would materially alter that decision. If we take that assumption as given, then Evans also assumes that the UK cannot credibly commit not to take any more children after the current 3,000.

What does “credibly committing” to something mean? A credible commitment occurs when an entity makes a believable and enforceable promise to do (or not do) something. This is often discussed within the field of monetary policy where a central bank cares about having lower inflation and lower unemployment. If the central bank simply announces that inflation will be lower, then once people belief that inflation will be lower, the central bank has an incentive to renege on the announcement so as to obtain lower unemployment at the expense of higher inflation. Hence, the original announcement would not be believed in the first place, preventing the central bank from obtaining lower inflation.

However, if the central bank could come up with a way for it to “credibly commit” to keeping inflation low, then the public would believe its announcement, such that inflation could be decreased. How to achieve such a credible commitment? In the case of a central bank, an inflation target is one potential way.

But what relevance does this have to migrants making a perilous journey, you might ask?

As mentioned, one assumption implicit in Evans’ argument is that the UK cannot credibly commit to saying “after these 3,000 children we won’t accept any more”, thereby meaning that other families would make a dangerous journey to try to get to Calais in the hope that they too would eventually be accepted into the UK. However, if the UK was able to credibly commit to taking such action (the form that such a credible commitment could take would be for various politicians to decide), then migrants choosing between making the dangerous journey or not would have less of an incentive to make said journey.

Moreover, a credible commitment by the UK might not necessarily affect families’ decisions at all. If the “push” factors are so strong, a slight change one way or another in the “pull” factors via a UK credible commitment is unlikely to substantially decrease the number of families making the journey.

As such, it seems that whether or not the UK accepts the current 3,000 children in the Calais jungle is highly unlikely to have a substantial impact in encouraging additional families to try to make a similar journey.

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