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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 14-01-2023 06:17

The intractable migrant problem

While a stalwart minority continues to insist that all comers with a legitimate claim should be allowed in and taken care of, in most places doubts about the wisdom of clinging to what in effect is an open-borders policy are now shared by a rapidly growing majority of their compatriots.

Until fairly recently, it was assumed that a typical refugee was someone like Albert Einstein or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who had incurred the wrath of ruthless dictators and wanted to live in a civilised country and therefore should be made welcome. Of course, there were many others whose achievements were less remarkable, but most proved to be fully capable of making positive contributions to societies willing to give them sanctuary.

There can certainly be no doubt that the United States, and to a lesser extent, the United Kingdom, benefited enormously from the influx of the European refugees that were driven from their homes by the Nazis and Communists. It was in large measure thanks to the arrival of cohorts of European researchers that the US became, and remained, the world’s top scientific nation. 

Something like this must have been what US President Joe Biden had in mind the other day when he compared the people trying to slip across the border with Mexico to the Jews who fled from Nazi Germany. He did not mention that at the time anti-Semitism was pervasive in Washington, where Franklin D. Roosevelt was in charge, so many of those who came close to the US were sent back to their deaths. 

Though, as Biden has just reminded us, the old stereotypes persist and influence the thinking of many, today the situation on the immigration front is very different. There are many times more people fleeing from their native countries and looking for a place in the democratic and, on the whole, prosperous West than there were over half a century ago. They may include some who, with luck, could emulate Einstein, Solzhenitsyn and others who distinguished themselves in their chosen fields, but the overwhelming majority are what are casually referred to as “ordinary” people coming from societies which, in many cases, have low literacy rates and are unfamiliar with democratic practices or the rule of law.

Were it simply a matter of finding room for a couple of million more, most sizeable countries could do so with little difficulty, but could they do the same with 10 million, say, or 20 million? If they tried, conditions in the host country would sooner or later resemble so closely those the newcomers presumably wanted to escape from that they would have to resume their journey.

This unfortunate fact confronts Western governments with some difficult problems. After World War II, it was widely agreed that all were honour-bound to let in men and women fleeing political persecution. For a while, most did, telling themselves it was in the national interest to do so, but with the number of people claiming asylum increasing exponentially, even “progressive” politicians in countries such as Sweden and guilt-ridden Germany are having second thoughts. While a stalwart minority continues to insist that all comers with a legitimate claim should be allowed in and taken care of, in most places doubts about the wisdom of clinging to what in effect is an open-borders policy are now shared by a rapidly growing majority of their compatriots.

Some countries think they have found a solution by applying a points system which discriminates in favour of the well-educated who clearly have what it takes to become model, productive citizens and seem unlikely to cause trouble. Is this fair? Surely everyone should be treated equally. And does it not entail depriving poorer parts of the world of the very people who, if they stayed, could help make them richer? It can also be interpreted as racist or Islamophobic; nowadays, most refugees lacking economically useful professional qualifications have dark skins and tend to be Muslims.

For defenders of letting in all deserving cases, the problem is: where to draw the line? How many Afghans, Pakistanis, North Africans, Sub-Saharan Africans or Middle Easterners can Sweden, the United Kingdom and other European countries absorb without changing so much that they come to resemble the places the refugees or migrants desperately want to leave behind? According to reports about what is going on in the enclaves – Malmö, some districts in Paris – they now dominate, not that many more, which is why demands that the local governments do far more to put a halt to what some describe as an “invasion” are getting louder. Much the same is happening in the US, where everyday thousands of people, most of them Latin Americans, cross the southern border without doing the mandatory paperwork. Apparently, the number already approaches three million a year and there are no signs that it is about to diminish.

Progressives who take it for granted that the sorry state of much of the world can be blamed on “white” imperialism which, after ransacking the countries its exponents briefly ruled, is currently engaged in wrecking the environment by pumping carbon into the atmosphere and thereby provoking head waves and other climatic disasters, do not find it at all strange that millions of victims of Western wickedness are risking their own lives and those of their dependents in an effort to live alongside those who are allegedly responsible for their plight. Instead of warning them against coming to lands they say are in the hands of vicious racists who despise outsiders, they encourage them to come by vigorously opposing all measures designed to make it harder for them to gain entry,

Most such measures have been merely symbolic. The UK government wants to send all those who try to cross the English Channel in dinghies and then get “rescued” by the coastguard services to Rwanda, where they can fill in the appropriate forms, but so far few have had to make the journey, In Italy, some would prefer a more robust approach; Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini would like to see the navy scaring off unauthorised ships carrying would-be immigrants by firing on them. And central European countries such as Hungary and Poland have no qualms when it comes to keeping out people for religious reasons, a policy which officials in Brussels say is abhorrent but which, as a result of public pressure, could eventually be adopted by many other members of the European Union.

We are told that two wrongs do not make a right, but two rights can certainly make a wrong. In a less disorderly world, everybody would be entitled to move to whatever country he or she fancied, as so many could do without much difficulty not that long ago, but it was also taken for granted that people in the host country were entitled to decide who should be let in. Unfortunately, these two basic principles, which for a long time were widely supported without many finding them contradictory, have collided, with ugly consequences for a huge number of people on both sides of the divide between the relatively well-ordered world and regions which are afflicted by war, hunger and political stupidity.

James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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