Moral economy and the refugee crisis

Is protection for refugees mandatory? Following recent media coverage of the issue, it seems that Croatia (Delauney, 18 September 2015), Hungary (Thorpe, 17 September 2015), and Germany (Harding, 13 September 2015) have decided that protection for refugees is not mandatory and therefore it needs to be, at least temporarily, ceased in the interest of protecting various national objectives. These EU countries have stopped protecting refugees by refusing them entry at their borders through various measures. In the case of Hungary at the Serbian border, this has taken the form of enforcing border controls, using teargas, water canons, net guns and a new, purpose-built fence (Weaver and Siddique, 16 September 2015; Eleftheriou-Smith, 21 September 2015). In the case of Germany, this has primarily involved opting out of or “temporarily exiting” the Schengen system (Harding, 13 September 2015).

In this brief blog entry we would like to consider two key points in light of this arbitrary halt of protection. Firstly, the enforceability of the legal framework in question. Secondly, the moral economy of the current system, which allows and enables this withdrawal of protection. In regards to the enforceability question, the legal framework in this context consists primarily of the United Nation 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. Together these legal instruments set out the legal rights of refugees, as well as states’ obligations towards them. All three countries mentioned above are signatories to both the UN Convention (1951) and Protocol (1967) and, therefore, it is remarkable how these protections can be overwritten as well as how participation in the Schengen system can be renegotiated, ceased, and temporarily frozen like a gym membership. Media coverage of the current refugee crisis has so far failed to focus in any detail on the international legal framework. Instead many media outlets, as well as politicians, have misrepresented the legal issues at stake here by conflating the terms “migrants” and “refugees”, which are distinct legal and social categories (see e.g. BBC, 22 September 2015; Edwards, 27 August 2015).

To consider this sudden violation of an established legal framework, we want here to momentarily turn to the moral economy of this system. It is in the era of intense marketization, where contracting security corporations to build fences in the “Fortress Europe” (Roberts, 17 June 2015; Graham-Harrison, 18 September 2015) is deemed to be much more profitable, efficient, and commercially viable than enhancing refugee protection and access to services. Indeed, much of the debate around the current (and many prior) refugee crisis has been framed in terms of “resources”, “capacity” and “costs” for individual member states. Most recently an UKIP MEP made an explicitly financial argument and claimed that the EU was wasting “£6,000 a pop” on resettling refugees; money which according to him could have been better spent on UK nationals (Mason, 18 September 2015). In this climate human lives become part of a seemingly straightforward economic calculation, in which refugees have to compete with other financial expenses. The current open-market and free-enterprise morality that dictates the enforcement of protections, only as long as it is financially beneficial, has been redefining morality in capitalist terms. In these terms, morality is an auxiliary of the financial climate of the day, freedom of movement is financialized and security is invested… The newly constructed refugee crisis is nothing other than an inevitable outcome of the expanding military and security industrial complex, a self-fulfilling prophecy (see e.g. The Guardian, 17 July 2015). Yet, following Philip Whitehead (2015, p.95), moral economy is “metanoia” ˗ a radical change of heart and mind. It is thus time we reconsider this type of morality.

Evi Boukli – Teesside Centre for Realist Criminology

Flora Renz – University of Kent



BBC (22 September 2015) Migrant crisis: Why EU deal on refugees is difficult. BBC. Retrieved 22 September 2015, from []

Delauney, Guy (18 September 2015) Migrant crisis: Croatia closes border crossings with Serbia. BBC. Retrieved 19 September 2015, from []

Edwards, Adrian (27 August 2015) UNHCR viewpoint: “Refugee” or “migrant” – Which is right? Retrieved 22 September 2015, from []

Eleftheriou-Smith, Loulla-Mae (21 September 2015) Refugee crisis: Hungary’s parliament passes law allowing army to use rubber bullets, tear gas grenades and net guns against refugees. The Independent. Retrieved 21 September 2015, from           []

Graham-Harrison, Emma (18 September 2015) Munich fears migrants and beer hunters may not mix well at Oktoberfest. The Guardian. Retrieved 17 September 2015, from[]

Harding, Luke (13 September 2015) Refugee crisis: Germany reinstates controls at Austrian border. The Guardian. Retrieved 17 September 2015, from[]

Mason, Rowena (18 September 2015) Ukip MEP blasts EU for helping refugees while grass left uncut in Essex. The Guardian. Retrieved 19 September 2015, from []

Roberts, Hannah (17 June 2015) Hungary building 13ft-high, 110-mile fence along its border with Serbia to stop the flow of illegal migrants. Daily Mail. Retrieved 17 September 2015, from[]

The Guardian (17 July 2015) The Guardian view on bombing Isis in Syria: the UK government should win the argument first. Retrieved 17 September 2015, from[]

Thorpe, Nick (17 September 2015) Migrant clashes leave Hungary bitterly divided. BBC. Retrieved 19 September 2015, from[]

UN General Assembly, Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 28 July 1951, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 189, p. 137, available at: [accessed 22 September 2015]

UN General Assembly, Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, 31 January 1967, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 606, p. 267, available at: [accessed 22 September 2015]

Weaver, Matthew and Siddique, Haroon (16 September 2015) Refugee crisis: Hungary uses teargas and water cannon at Serbia border – as it happened. Retrieved 18 September 2015, from[]

Whitehead, Philip (2015) Reconceptualising the Moral Economy of Criminal Justice: A New Perspective. Palgrave Macmillan.

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