As far-right leaders focus on migration, other challenges fall by the wayside.
What is the most pressing problem facing the world today? Is it the proliferation of nuclear weapons, threatening the annihilation of the human species? Is it climate change, which could lead to many of the world’s major cities being flooded, or whole regions being rendered uninhabitable? Is it guaranteeing the food supply, in a world where the natural environment is changing and in which population is growing? Is it the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, which could have untold consequences for the world’s atmosphere? Is it warfare, which destabilizes countries and regions, destroying resources and leading to environmental degradation? Is it the threat of another financial crisis? Given that bank equity is larger than it was in 2007, far larger than the GDPs of many countries, a new crisis could cause havoc if banks collapse. Or is it terrorism, especially cyber-terrorism, which threatens chaos by bringing down the communications and banking systems on which we all depend?
No. According to many of the western world’s leaders, the biggest threat we face is migration. The rise of radical right movements and parties, leading to the enactment of illiberal policies and the entrenchment of increasingly authoritarian states, is directly linked to the manufacture of fear amongst western populations. Fear that their way of life is under threat from migrants.
Few would argue that large-scale migration brings challenges. Confronted with new languages, dress, traditions, and behavior, settled communities can feel uneasy about the people who have recently arrived. In the short-term, migrants place pressures on schools, hospitals, and housing. The cost of dealing with migrants, from processing their paperwork to finding them places to live, can be resented by people who wonder why the money is not spent on them instead – especially when refugees tend to be placed in poorer areas where locals might themselves be struggling to get by.
All of these concerns are legitimate. Yet seeming to fall on deaf ears is academic research which suggests that, in the medium to long-term, migrants contribute more to economies than they take out; that the social services and health systems of developed populations with low birth rates need an influx of people in order to maintain the status quo; and that those who arrive as migrants tend to be young, energetic and enterprising. In the long run, migrant groups – this has been shown time and again – become settled communities and, within a few generations, their children are simply members of the wider community like everyone else, even if they continue to face the problems that minority groups have to deal with all the time.
More important, if migration is a more pressing concern for many voters than issues such as climate change, there seems to be equally little interest in understanding the drivers of that migration. Rich countries’ histories of slavery, imperialism and postcolonial control over the global south through loans and industrial dependence, mean that global inequality sustains the developed world’s appeal for those coming from poorer countries. The recent history of warfare, especially intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere, is another reason why migrants leave their homes. It is not a decision that anyone takes lightly. If one is starving and bombed out of one’s home in Syria, not free to be oneself in a deeply repressive country such as Eritrea, or unable to feed one’s family in a place where the harvest has failed yet again with no state support, what alternative is there but to seek a better life somewhere else – somewhere more stable?
It is insulting our intelligence to suggest that the solution is to simply clamp down on people smugglers. The latter exists because of the lack of legal opportunities for migration; they are not the force driving the desire to migrate. The huge amounts of money spent on Frontex (the EU’s border control agency) or on US border controls could have allowed migrants to be provided for instead, with plenty to spare. And now, by refusing migrant ships entry to ports while forcing the EU to consider unworkable “solutions” such as “processing centres” in North Africa, politicians are engaged in a race to the bottom. Radical right populists wilfully generate a sense of crisis amongst European and American civilians, even as migrant numbers are falling to levels that in no economic or infrastructural sense could be construed as a “crisis.”
Western voters are forgetting that migrants are human beings with the same basic aspirations that they hold: security, stability, and prosperity for themselves and their children. They are not icebreakers for global jihad or spearheads of organized crime. Good and bad people exist in every community, and among all population groups. If the developed world wants to limit the flow of migrants to its borders then it needs to address the reasons why migrants take the hard decision (try imagining it yourself) of leaving everything they know behind in order to move to lands about which they know little – apart from the fact that they will be outsiders and face great hardship. These reasons mean that voters will have to stop considering migration as the number one problem facing them and start thinking about issues which will, ultimately, affect everyone on the planet. To do otherwise is to see nothing, hear nothing and say nothing. It is politics infantilized on a grand scale, benefitting no one but demagogues.
Dr Dan Stone is a Senior Fellow at CARR and a Professor of Modern History at the University of London.
© Dan Stone. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).
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