The Mathematical Equations That Could Decide the Fate of Refugees

Where humanity meets bureaucracy

eriwst / Flickr

It looks like the kind of math problem that appears in nightmares about the calculus exam you completely forgot to take. It’s actually a formula that could determine whether, say, a family of Syrian refugees finds safe haven in Latvia or Lithuania or Luxembourg, or perhaps nowhere in Europe.

On Wednesday, shortly after European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced a new plan to distribute 120,000 asylum-seekers currently in Greece, Hungary, and Italy among the EU’s 28 member states, Duncan Robinson of the Financial Times tweeted a series of grainy equations from the annex of a proposed European regulation, which establishes a mechanism for relocating asylum-seekers during emergency situations beyond today’s acute crisis. Robinson’s message: “So, how do they decide how many refugees each country should receive? ‘Well, it’s very simple...’”

Behold the simplicity:

European Commission

In an FAQ posted on Wednesday, the European Commission expanded on the thinking behind the elaborate math. Under the proposed plan, if the Commission determines at some point in the future that there is a refugee crisis in a given country (as there is today in Greece, Hungary, and Italy, the countries migrants reach first upon arriving in Europe), it will set a number for how many refugees in that country should be relocated throughout the EU. That number will be “not higher than 40% of the number of [asylum] applications made [in that country] in the past six months.”

European leaders will then assess each EU member’s ability to absorb some of these refugees, based on factors like the size of the member’s population and economy, the national unemployment rate, and existing demand from refugees for resettlement in the member state. The European Commission’s primer adds that for each country to which these refugees might be distributed, the “distribution key,” or system for establishing quotas, will be based on:

a) the size of the population (40% weighting),

b) the total GDP (40% weighting),

c) the average number of asylum applications over the previous four years (10% inverse weighting with a 30% cap of the population and GDP effect on the key to avoid disproportionate impact)

d) the unemployment rate (10% inverse weighting with a 30% cap of the population and GDP effect on the key to avoid disproportionate effect).

In addition, each receiving Member State appoints Liaison Officers to match the destination country with refugees’ qualifications, language skills, family, cultural and social ties, to help integration.

What’s most striking to me is the contrast between the sigmas and subscripts in the refugee formula—the inhumanity of technocratic compromise by mathematical equation—and the raw, tragic, heroic humanity on display in recent coverage of the refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, and elsewhere who are pouring into Europe.

Or consider the contrast between the formula above and Juncker’s impassioned speech advocating for the European quota system. “We Europeans should remember well that Europe is a continent where nearly everyone has at one time been a refugee,” he declared on Wednesday. “Pushing back boats from piers, setting fire to refugee camps, or turning a blind eye to poor and helpless people: that is not Europe.”

“Europe is the baker in Kos who gives away his bread to hungry and weary souls. Europe is the students in Munich and in Passau who bring clothes for the new arrivals at the train station. Europe is the policeman in Austria who welcomes exhausted refugees upon crossing the border.”

Europe is also the arbiter of tens of thousands of destinies, bound up in the complex calculations of bureaucrats in Brussels.