When will the West learn that migration is in its best interests?

Many countries are adopting a fortress mentality but moving away from fear-based policies is vital if they are to manage this continuing flow of humanity

More than 10,000 migrants leave Tapachula in southern Mexico on Christmas Eve, bound for the US. Donald Trump has vowed to begin mass deportations should he win next year's election. EPA
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The clearest sign that this has been a dark, unsettling year may be the cresting global wave of anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric. Leaders tend to take clear stands against new arrivals in response to spikes in the violence and instability that drive people from their homes.

Russia’s war in Ukraine is set to enter its third year, having created as many as 12 million refugees. Israel has killed more than 20,000 Palestinians and displaced some 1.8 million in Gaza. Pakistan recently began sending some 1.7 million Afghan migrants back to their homeland.

Sudan’s civil war has forced more than six million people from their homes, while Myanmar’s has again put that state on the verge of collapse. There are a handful of other hotspots, and 2023 has been the hottest year on record, with heat waves, drought, and devastating floods driving still more misery across the developing world.

No surprise, then, that the share of the world’s displaced has more than doubled since 2012, from 0.6 per cent of the global population to 1.4 per cent. In 2023, the EU has seen its highest number of migrant arrivals since the 2015-16 crisis, with nearly a million applying for asylum. The US this year experienced a record high of new arrivals at its southern border – 2.5 million, nearly three times the pre-pandemic total of 2019.

Earlier this year I predicted the West would continue to embrace a fortress mentality, and the most common response thus far has been to pull up the drawbridge. With pressure building on the Gaza border, Egypt has repeatedly refused to welcome Palestinians. As US President Joe Biden mulls harsh border controls in exchange for more Ukraine aid, his main challenger, former president Donald Trump, has been vowing to revive his so-called Muslim ban, begin mass deportations, and flatly refuse asylum claims, should he win next November.

Last week Mr Trump declared that immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country”. This came shortly after the frontline state of Texas enabled authorities to detain and deport suspected illegals – a law critics described as “rooted in racism”. Across the pond, after three years of talks, the EU last week agreed to its first-ever joint policy, redefining rules for receiving and relocating irregular migrants.

Most observers viewed the new policy as enhancing state protections and limiting migrant rights, reflecting the slow but steady rise of Europe’s far-right. A Belgian editorial expected the lack of monitoring would “allow the Frontex agency and unscrupulous European border guards to continue their violations in all impunity”.

Like Texas, France also passed its own law, making it more difficult for new arrivals to bring family members to France and delaying access to government benefits. “It is a collective punishment based on the spread of irrational fears,” argued one French jurist.

Today even more people are on the move, and given the growing impact of climate change, it’s probably safe to say this genie is not going back into the bottle anytime soon

One of the few bright spots has been the sunny Aegean. As part of this month’s Athens declaration, Turkey and Greece agreed to swap border guards and co-operate more closely on security around the Aegean islands, where thousands have perished in recent years.

Last week, Athens approved an amendment granting residence permits to migrants who have been in the country three years without committing a crime. Greece has largely avoided the migrant-driven social issues faced by the likes of France, Germany and Sweden, mainly because migrants tend to see it as a place of transit rather than a destination.

The new amendment, which is a nod to the domestic labour shortage, aims to convince more of them to stick around, which points towards the grave need and enduring draw of the US and EU. Both are similarly in the market for young people and workers while remaining terribly appealing to the world’s dispossessed.

Even amid surging global criticism of the West, they present a pull that is not only about prosperity, but also freedom and respect for the rule of law and human rights. But policies that prioritise citizens and dismiss the desperate risk violating such principles, voiding a potent soft power tool.

Turkey could be exhibit A of this double-edged sword. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last month described his country as a safe haven for the oppressed. Rhetorical positioning, perhaps, yet rooted in reality: Turkey hosts more refugees than any country in the world, 5.2 million foreign nationals as of early this year, including 3.6 million Syrians.

This has predictably sparked a nativist backlash, with politicians vowing to send refugees home, authorities detaining and allegedly deporting those deemed illegal, and Turks regularly harassing Syrians in the streets.

Meanwhile, an increasingly fraught political climate and persistent economic hardship have in the past decade driven nearly a million Turks to head for the relative safety and prosperity of western countries. So many creatives, professionals, and skilled workers have left that, according to some analysts, Turkey now faces a serious labour shortage and a perilous economic future.

"Losses from brain drain are not instantaneous but compound over years, undermining the foundations of prosperity," tech expert and business development strategist Sven Koksal argued in August. "Turkey's government cannot afford to ignore this challenge."

In a new book, An Exodus from Turkey by Ahmet Erdi Ozturk and Bahar Baser, exiled fashion designer Barbaros Sansal speaks of how it upsets him to see so many Turks abroad struggling to build new lives, even as their homeland struggles as well. “I realise the country’s considerable losses,” he says. “Perhaps those who want to return one day will do so.”

Return, sadly, is all too rare; the vast majority of migrants settle where they land and seek to prosper. They often spur local fear and resentment, as in 2016, when the world saw the rise of a Mount Rushmore of xenophobia: Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany, Austria’s Freedom Party, the UK’s Brexit and Donald Trump all scored significant victories.

Today even more people are on the move, and given the growing impact of climate change and experts' predictions of increasing instability, it’s probably safe to say this genie is not going back into the bottle anytime soon. So, unless we’re able to move away from fear and embrace the benefits of movement, this looming tsunami of humanity is likely to bring us another Hobbesian annus horribilis, and another, and another and another.

Published: December 26, 2023, 4:00 AM
Updated: December 30, 2023, 6:11 PM