Swiss economists suggest charging migrants a fee

Many foreigners are fleeing the US for Canada, sometimes straight into the arms of Canadian police at the border. Keystone

Rather than blocking their entry, nations should charge migrants a fee for being taken in, suggest two Swiss economists in a joint opinion piece in Sunday’s NZZ am Sonntag newspaper. Political reactions have been overwhelmingly negative.

This content was published on February 20, 2017 minutes

In addition to financing the host nation’s infrastructure, the fee would help cover integration measures to help new residents. Economists Margit Osterloh and Bruno S Frey admit that the idea of charging refugees a fee might seem disturbing at first.

“But refugees already spend a lot of money in the hopes of reaching us,” they say, pointing out that the money – CHF9,000 ($8,978) on average for a risky if not dangerous trip – often ends up supporting criminal organisations. On top of that, a fake passport costs CHF2,000-4,000,

So Osterloh and Frey recommend that migrants willing to adhere to the host country’s rules receive safe entry and work permits with immediate effect in exchange for a fee. Those granted asylum would get their money back, and those who ultimately decide to return home would also be able to get some cash back.

Calling it a win-win situation, Osterloh and Frey say that such a system would encourage migrants to work hard to integrate and improve their prospects in the host nations. And the economists note that it should also be a boon to the homelands.

“It’s especially important to us that the homelands benefit. Migrants send a lot of money home – double that of the world’s official development aid. And it’s twice as effective because it’s not lost via bureaucracy and corruption, but instead goes straight to the needy,” write the economists, both of whom have several decades of experience, including teaching at Swiss universities.

Not everyone, however, is so keen on the idea. “We should instead be asking Western countries or multinationals for a financial contribution, since for centuries they’ve been starting wars and starving populations by imposing a capitalist system. Who’s responsible for the chaos in Libya or Syria? Certainly not refugees,” Cédric Wermuth from the leftwing Social Democratic Party told

For him, “asking people fleeing a war to pay for protection is unacceptable and immoral”, as well as contrary to the spirit of the Geneva Conventions, of which Switzerland is the depositary.

Wermuth outlines another solution: the creation of humanitarian corridors to allow refugees to seek asylum safely and for free, and the strengthening of settlement programmes, inside and outside the EU’s borders.

The rightwing Swiss People’s Party, which has made immigration one of its key campaign issues, is also against the idea.

“It’s an absolutely unfeasible proposal,” says People’s Party parliamentarian Heinz Brand. “What's the point in a Europe without borders? Switzerland is a small country and must already cope with uncontrolled immigration. We can’t afford to let everyone in indiscriminately.”

Brand, a specialist on immigration issues, also points out that this solution would neither reduce costs nor facilitate integration.

“Most migrants do not have a professional profile that meets the needs of the economy. It would therefore be extremely difficult to incorporate them into the world of work. Politically, this proposal is a non-starter.” 

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