December 21, 2018

Ethics of Migration Flows and Europe’s Responsibility

A demonstration outside Stenbock House, seat of the Estonian government, in Tallinn on 15 November. The UN migration compact has faced opposition in Estonia.
A demonstration outside Stenbock House, seat of the Estonian government, in Tallinn on 15 November. The UN migration compact has faced opposition in Estonia.

Estonia has a moral duty to help refugees, too.

For years Europe has been struggling with a migrant crisis that has seen thousands of people sink to the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, forced tens of thousands of migrants into detention facilities with barely any legal protection,1 and led to the rise of right-wing populists and political crises.2 Migration policy is undoubtedly seen as one of the most critical problems in nearly all European Union countries.3 However, those who claim that this is not so much a migration crisis as a European ethical crisis are right.4

Three Grounds for Moral Commitment and Europe’s Burden from its Colonial Past

When is one party morally obliged to help the other? I believe under three circumstances: guilt, reciprocity and capability. In the first case, damage has been caused to the other party, which automatically results in the obligation to compensate for it. The second is based on the good deed of one party, which brings about a natural expectation of a favour in return. The third is the most noble occasion, as it depends only on the inner virtue of the person—without hoping to receive anything in return, they admit their better standing (capability), meet the needs of those worse off and help them to move on and catch up; i.e. if a party is capable of and able to do something, they decide to help and take action without thought of recompense.

Europe is in an ethical crisis over all of the above, in terms of both what has already been done and what is still happening. Where do the migration flows to Europe originate? The Middle East and Africa—two poor regions (in relative and absolute terms, respectively) whose inhabitants migrate to one of the world’s richest and most stable areas. I agree with Estonian diplomat Indrek Elling that: “We have to address the underlying cause of problems in Africa, not bury our heads in the sand”.5 However, he is too cautious in seeing only the high birth-rate—which could be resolved by flooding the region with contraceptives—as the source of problems.6 Looking more closely at the origins of the burden of the people in the countries from which migration flows come, we cannot overlook what remains a taboo: nearly all African and Middle Eastern countries are former colonies of Western European states. Colonialism is the one thing that nearly all non-Western countries have experienced.7

This fact is usually glossed over as if it were something insignificant and archaic, although many former colonies gained independence only half a century ago and the majority of their problems are of European origin. The impact of colonialism was evident in all aspects of society, whether in prevailing concepts (ideology and culture), the structure of the economy, population or political institutions etc. I shall elaborate on a few of these points based on the book I referred to above, by political scientists December Green and Laura Luehrmann (Comparative Politics of the “Third World”).

  • Structure of the economy. Colonialism destroyed independent economies, ruined local industries and replaced traditional trading networks with a global system that the Europeans dominated and the rest of the world served. The colonies had to serve the interests of the imperial country, which meant being a source of raw materials and a guaranteed market for industrial products. This was exchangeable inequality: the inhabitants of the colonies were forced to produce what they did not consume and consume what they did not produce. They exported raw materials to the West to buy back finished products.8 This meant that the West specialised in industry with high added value and performance (wealth), while forcing its colonies to focus on the primary sector with low added value and performance, i.e. agriculture and the extraction of raw materials (poverty).9
  • Population. The demand for labour created by this economic system tore apart communities and families and forced the subordinated populations to work so hard that they were unable to engage in additional activities or look after their health. Natives were deprived of land and traditional welfare systems were dismantled. In the first 40 years of colonial rule, overwork and abuse reduced the population of the Belgian Congo by half. It allegedly decreased by 90% in the Valley of Mexico during the first 100 years of colonial rule.10 None of the colonial borders were drawn according to the location of ethnic groups, but rather followed the interests of the imperial powers, and sometimes the lines were even simply drawn using a ruler.
  • Education and culture. Education provided to the colonised population was intended to perpetuate racial inequality, ensure permanent subordination and convince the natives of their inferiority. They had to give up everything characteristic of their own culture: birthrights, traditions, clothing, customs, religion, language—in some cases even their names. The students who grew up to be the elite of their country eventually became alienated from their own culture. They were taught to assimilate and admire European culture and regard their own as decadent and worthless,11 thereby severing the bond between the rulers and subjects of these countries.
  • Political system. In order to minimise administrative costs, local political systems were distorted and advantage was taken of the local elite, if necessary creating a new upper class from the natives. They became the middlemen of the imperial power, supervising adherence to regulations, tax collection and the recruitment of forced labour. This position was used for personal enrichment (by appropriating public property, and selling and buying positions of influence), which left behind the mentality of corruption—the understanding that the government can be manipulated with money and that political power is the surest path to wealth. Colonialism destroyed pre-existing political systems and undermined the legitimacy of local leaders, without providing a practicable alternative to authoritarianism.12

Colonialism was government based on intolerance, alienation from native culture and establishing economic dependence for the colonised.13 Even the actions of the evil empire seem to pale next to the cruelty and crimes of our current Western European allies. Although the natives were attacked on all fronts, there is probably a grain of truth in the writings of Lawrence Weschler, who said that “Soviet domination was in fact that unique historical perversity, an empire in which the center bled itself for the sake of its colonies, or rather, for the sake of tranquillity in those colonies [emphasis original]. Muscovites always lived poorer lives than Varsovians.”14 Neither in the Baltics nor further west was local industry demolished—this was only done after regaining independence (in full). The population grew in almost all of the Eastern Bloc, and local culture and language were preserved and developed.15 We are similar to the colonies of the West only in terms of the characteristics of our political system—it seems we are still recovering from that.

The Present, a Past Best Forgotten

If only it were the past. In the global economic system, Africa and the Middle East (and the majority of the developing world in general) have retained their colonial-era economic structure—they specialise in the production and export of primary-sector products (agricultural produce and raw materials), whilst importing expensive industrial products from the West. But even these sectors do not have a level playing field with the West: Europe is flooding the local markets with heavily-subsidised cheap goods (including the same agricultural products that might be the only or primary products of the non-Western countries), which pushes down prices and renders the local goods superfluous.16 This has resulted in current account deficits, significantly increased the debt burden of these countries and forced them to sell out to Western creditors and investors.

Governments in the West have been willing to support local tyrants and oligarchs if they offer more beneficial terms for Western businessmen: the statement “I know he’s a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch” is attributed to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but it could have been used by many European leaders. Green and Luehrmann claim that the West has regularly interfered to eliminate non-Western-leaning governments seeking radical structural change in interclass relationships and income division, so these countries have significantly less power over their fate, and cannot plan their own development, manage their economies, determine their strategies and priorities or generally organise their affairs—they have been deprived of their right to freedom.17

There was recently an international crisis when a pilot from one NATO member state accidentally fired a missile on the territory of another, without causing any significant damage. However, the fact that our main NATO ally, the US, and its allies (Saudi Arabia, Israel, etc.) constantly carry out (often based on information provided by European governments18) drone, missile and other air strikes19 on foreign territories in the Middle East (and not only there), where hundreds and thousands of civilians die, seems to worry only the local population and the Islamic extremists who are emerging from this bloodbath.20 Western colonists used to rule from local strongholds; now they do so from the air. It is no surprise that quite a few locals have decided to vote with their feet against this state of affairs.

What to do? Compensate for the Damage Caused, Pay Our Dues and Help According to Our Capabilities

The flow of people from the poor world to the rich can be seen as recompense for what has been done to them. Some might call this karma. Nearly all Western European countries that got rich thanks to their colonies over many decades, and in some cases centuries, share the blame: Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain. Even Scandinavian countries have a colonial past in Africa and elsewhere, albeit a much shorter one and on a smaller scale. It is therefore only natural that they should bear the bulk of the burden of solving the migrant crisis: whoever causes harm to another for their own benefit should compensate the other for this. Keeping the problem at bay behind the borders of Europe is not the solution here; it only denies the problem and sweeps it under the carpet.21 Because these Western European states are the reason African and Middle Eastern countries are in such a bad way, they are obliged either to accept the migrant flows or to help build local societies that people would not need to get away from.22

Consider, for example, Indrek Elling’s argument about birth-rates being too high. Although contraceptives are a cure for overpopulation as a symptom, its structural reasons lie in the economic structure of these societies: a declining birth-rate accompanies the modernisation of society in the form of urbanisation resulting from industrialisation.23 As long as people are mainly employed in the primary sector (especially in the rural economy), it should not be expected that the culture affecting their sexual behaviour will change to a sufficient extent. Africa seemed to be on this course in the 1960s and 1970s, until the World Bank, IMF and the West in general forced free-trade policies on these countries, suddenly exposing unprepared producers to international competition, leading to the collapse of the small industrial sectors these young countries had managed to build.24

For countries with a similar fate to catch up with the West, developing countries need to protect and nurture their producers before they acquire the ability to compete in the world market unassisted25—these countries need to be given greater freedom to control their balance of payments and regulate their economy, and be allowed to build their own industry, including with funds given (back) by the West. Elling’s proposed measures from the “fourth industrial revolution” would certainly contribute, but only if these are not provided for making a profit—agrarian countries don’t always have the tools to even reap the fruits of the first industrial revolution.

Does this mean that Estonia and other Eastern European countries that do not have their own imperial history (bar the acts of the former Duchy of Courland) can be bystanders and refrain from taking action? No. Political theorist David Miller has said that the initial responsibility to refugees is global: it falls on all agents who are capable of protecting a vulnerable individual’s human rights.26 Albeit we are relatively poor compared to Western European countries, we are still one of the most highly developed countries in the world and among the “golden billion”. When Lebanon has been forced to accept 1.5 million refugees (nearly a quarter of its population), how could Poland (which is 1.5 times richer per capita), Estonia (about twice as wealthy) or Austria (5.5 times richer) refuse to help—not to mention Western Europe? The UN classifies Lebanon as a country of high human development (the West as a whole consists of countries of very high human development). Much of Africa and Syria, whence the migrant flows originate, are in the lowest category—and as much as 85% of the refugees are dealt with by the developing world itself.27 We have a moral duty to the poor of the world, if only because we are better off.

What should we make of the UN Global Compact for Migration in this context? The majority of its 23 objectives28 make supporting it a natural choice for most people who want to reduce suffering in the world. Examples include: to “save lives and establish coordinated international efforts on missing migrants” (objective 8) and to reduce the vulnerabilities in migration, generally ensure migrant safety and the protection of human rights through consular protection, providing access to basic services and eliminating all forms of discrimination (7, 14, 15 and 17). The compact even includes points that could be supported by the most ardent conservatives: combating the smuggling of migrants (objective 9) and people-trafficking (10), managing borders more effectively (11), “minimiz[ing] the adverse drivers and structural factors that compel people to leave their country of origin” (2) and collecting more detailed data on international migration (1)—i.e. to reduce migration and have a better overview of it.

In general, the compact seems to be a step in the right direction. It has two weaknesses. First, it may be necessary but not sufficient in itself: because it does not create any obligations on its signatories, it may end up as just another grand declaration among dozens of others, which are never intended to be implemented and the only aim of which is to glorify our supposed nobility. If Estonia were to join it, it should not be to improve its chances of being elected to the UN Security Council or to keep up with the rest of the world, but to actually achieve these objectives with sincere intentions. Which brings us to the second weakness: because this is an objective assumed by our political community, it also needs popular approval. We have approval in the sense of representative democracy (the Estonian Parliament (Riigikogu) voted in favour) but not in the sense of direct democracy—more than a half of the Estonian population opposes it.29 Without the nation’s support it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to make any further progress.

That is the beauty and pain of democracy: people have the greatest power and it must remain so, but the fear of losing it stemming from uncertain times could lead people to choose the wrong path. They need to keep this right to remain free. As long as our society is based on free speech, there is hope that somewhere, in a more peaceful future and with better argumentation, it will be possible to convince the people to change course. What matters most is that we do not forget our part in the history of nations or our moral duty, because as long as Europe fails to recognise the effect of the former parasitic empire–colony relationship and starts to help the developing world proportionate to its guilt and the capability and benefits it gained from damaging its former colonies, the ethical crisis will never come to an end.


1 See, for example, Simas Grigonis, “EU in the Face of Migrant Crisis: Reasons for Ineffective Human Rights Protection”, International Comparative Jurisprudence 2(2) (2016), pp. 93–8.

2 As has happened in Estonia with the Global Compact for Migration, a relatively meaningless declaration of goodwill prepared under the auspices of the UN. It is all the more saddening that this has not only led to calls for political violence but also corresponding acts. The agreement will be discussed in more detail later in this article.

3 European Commission, “Public Opinion in the European Union. First Results”, Standard Eurobarometer 89, Spring 2018, pp. 4, 7.

4 Especially given that the flow of people to Europe across the Mediterranean has halved.

5 Indrek Elling, “The Sahel: A Hopeless Corner of the World?” Diplomaatia, 10 August 2018. (accessed 13 August 2018). In English at

6 This does not mean that the measure itself is not suitable for resolving some issues.

7 December Green & Laura Luehrmann, Comparative Politics of the “Third World”: Linking Concepts and Cases. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2007, p. 45.

8 Ibid., pp. 45–8.

9 Erik S. Reinert, Globaalne majandus. Kuidas rikkad rikkaks said ja miks vaesed üha vaesemaks jäävad (Global Economy: How the rich got rich and why the poor get poorer). Tallinn: Varrak, 2013, p. 61.

10 Green & Luehrmann, p. 54.

11 Ibid., p. 51.

12 Ibid., pp. 53–4. It should be noted that former colonies that have gone on to be highly developed were those whose political institutions survived the colonial era. See, for example, James Robinson, “Botswana as a Role Model for Country Success”, Research Paper 40. Helsinki: UNU-WIDER, 2009, pp. 1, 3.

13 Green & Luehrmann, p. 54.

14 Noam Chomsky, Deterring Democracy. New York: Hill and Wang, 1992, p. 244.

15 Raivo Vetik, Eesti poliitika ja valitsemine 1991–2011. Tallinn: TLÜ Kirjastus, 2012, p. 113.

16 Reinert, pp. 46–7, 135.

17 Green & Luehrmann, pp. 67–8.

18 Amnesty International, “European Assistance to Deadly US drone Strikes”, 19 April 2018.

19 For example, the “red funeral” in Yemen, covered by the TV programme “Pealtnägija”, in which US-assisted Saudi pilots killed 140 people and injured another 500, who had gathered for a funeral, in a “double-tap attack”—a terrorist attack in all but name (Merili Nael, “Rahvusvahelisel koalitsioonil on Jeemenis uus pommitamise taktika”, ERR, 29 March 2017.… (accessed 27 November 2018)).

20 Many jihadist terrorist groups started with Western assistance (e.g. the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, later acting as the launchpad for Osama bin Laden). Even now, 70% of weapons delivered to the Middle East come from the US, Britain and France; one can speculate about the effect this has had on the region’s stability (see Amnesty International, “Killer Facts: The scale of the global arms trade”, 12 September 2018).… (accessed 3 November 2018).

21 This is not working. The agreement with Turkey has always been ethically hypocritical, and North African governments are not willing to support the idea of establishing preventive detention facilities. As Tahar Cherif, the Tunisian ambassador to the EU, said: “We have neither the capacity nor the means to organise these detention centres. We are already suffering a lot from what is happening in Libya, which has been the effect of European action.” (Jennifer Rankin & Patrick Wintour, “EU Admits no African Country Has Agreed to Host Migration Centre”, The Guardian, 21 June 2018).… (accessed 2 November 2018).

22 The latter option seems preferable: why should a good life come at the price of abandoning one’s homeland? While this has not been done, the first option is inevitable.

23 Robert Weintraub, “The Birth Rate and Economic Development: An Empirical Study”, Econometrica: Journal of the Econometric Society 30(4) (October 1962), pp. 812–7 [816]; Sergei P. Kapitza, Demographic Transition, Value Inquiry Book Series 276 (2014), pp. 123–4.

24 Ha-Joon Chang, 23 asja, mida teile kapitalismist ei räägita (23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism). Tallinn: Argo, 2014, p. 123.

25 Ibid., p. 80.

26 David Miller, “Justice in immigration”, European Journal of Political Theory 14(4) (2015), pp. 391–408 [395].

27 UNHCR, “Figures at a Glance, 2018”. (accessed 4 November 2018).

28 Read the Global Compact for Migration in Estonian at… (accessed 26 November 2018). In English at:

29 Marek Kuul, “Uuring: ÜRO rändelepingut pooldab 26 protsenti, vastu on 56 protsenti”, ERR, 26 November 2018.… (accessed 26 November 2018).


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.