MIGRATION: A CASE FOR STAY AND BUILD
Nair is the founder of the Global Institute for Tomorrow (GIFT)
and the author of The Sustainable State: The Future of Government,
Economy, and Society.
trundles into a harbour, carrying several hundred migrants escaping
war. Authorities discover them and refuse to let them disembark.
The international humanitarian crisis is resolved only when desperate
refugees force the issue by scuttling their ship.
is not a story from today’s Greece or Italy, but about the
Skyluck, a Panamanian freighter carrying 2,000 refugees from Vietnam
in early 1979. The freighter sailed into Hong Kong, where it stayed
for four months. Refugees, weary of squalid conditions, cut the
anchor cable and ran aground on Lamma Island. Vietnamese refugees
challenged many countries in much the same way that refugees test
Europe or the United States today. Camps sprung up in poorer countries,
like Indonesia and the Philippines. Wealthy places like Hong Kong,
Singapore, Malaysia and countries further abroad revealed themselves
as less open than implied, often to the harsh criticism of international
later, the South China Sea no longer has a refugee crisis. Instead,
people are returning to the dynamic economies of Vietnam and Cambodia.
time, accepting Vietnamese refugees may have been the moral action,
but it did not solve fundamental reasons why people fled. In the
end, what ‘solved’ the boat people crisis was a stable,
no-nonsense government in Vietnam pursuing a platform of growth
and development on its own terms, with the hard work of those
who stayed behind and sacrificed.
a nation is hard work, especially after the destruction and deprivation
of war and colonization. It is often easier for those with resources
to pursue a better life elsewhere than to stay and build. The
mindset of those who leave is understandable: Opportunities in
wealthy countries appear potentially safer in the short term.
Yet for many migrants, such moves lead to a life of regret in
a foreign land, shaped by an inability or unwillingness to assimilate
or a resentment borne out of isolation and discrimination.
drain’ and ‘brawn drain,’ taking able-bodied
and educated people and under-employing them in developed ones,
is clearly harmful to developing countries. One encounters countless
trained engineers, doctors and other professionals working as
shopkeepers, domestic help and taxi drivers in Australia, Germany,
the United Kingdom and the United States. This trained professional
workforce endures pain of a different sort while exacerbating
a dire situation at home.
countries, in general, take pride in being open societies, especially
when migrant flows are small and made up of the skilled and talented.
But when migrant flows increase dramatically, as they did in Southeast
Asia during the 1970s and 1980s, or in Europe today, this rhetorical
commitment becomes more difficult to sustain. In addition, as
globalization chips away at the economic privileges of the richer
nations and creates a more level playing field, resentment has
increased towards immigrants. In Europe, the migrant crisis has
empowered several reactionary and populist movements, some of
which openly cross the line into discriminatory rhetoric. And
while there is a basic humanitarian obligation to absorb people
in dire straits it is only realistic to recognize that no country
– no matter how liberal and democratic – can or will
accept an endless stream of people without conditions. Politicians
see to that.
can no longer hold on to the illusion that citizens from poor
and badly governed places will always have an option to escape
for the liberal West. The truth is that the doors have been slammed
shut. Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton conceded this
in an interview with The Guardian, expressing admiration
for the “generous and compassionate approaches” taken
by leaders like Angela Merkel, yet noting, “it is fair to
say Europe has done its part,” adding if societies don’t
“deal with the migration issue, it will continue to roil
the body politic.”
must better manage global migration flows, but really solving
the problem requires improving opportunities in developing countries,
avoiding tragic interventions by foreign powers, often led by
the United States, and resolving conflicts as they arise. Closing
borders, whether by tightening controls or constructing physical
barriers, is not the answer. Anyone desperate enough to leave
can evade controls, and others happily smuggle people, worsening
tensions: Anti-immigration forces point to increasing illegal
migration, while pro-immigration groups criticize harsh enforcement.
the only way to solve the migrant crisis is to improve economies
and living standards in the most vulnerable countries, encouraging
skilled and competent people stay and build the country. Stability
while being poor is better than being poor in an unstable environment.
Interventions in the Middle East and North Africa created instability,
triggering mass movements of people.
countries need to find ways to understand this simple equation
and instead invest in an approach to support people building their
lives where they are. For example, in the aftermath of conflict
in Vietnam and Cambodia, Asian countries helped these countries
rebuild. Japan offered development aid to countries throughout
Southeast Asia, sometimes ignoring Western sanctions, betting
that improved living conditions would secure these societies better
than lecturing and isolation. This has been borne out in Vietnam,
now a Southeast Asian economic power in its own right.
new President Andrés Manuel López Obrador after
his election made a similar offer to President Donald Trump: Obrador
would limit migration from Mexico into the United States in exchange
for development aid. Obrador understands that a developed and
stable economy would do more to limit migration than any wall
Trump might build. Admittedly, the United States has an easier
situation when it comes to working with its neighbours to control
migration. Latin America countries are, with a few exceptions,
functioning states and largely democratic.
problem is tougher. Migrants come from nearby war zones, authoritarian,
corrupt, crumbling and conflict-ridden. But if Europe wants to
limit the flow of migrants, it must start working to improve the
governance, economy and social framework of these countries rather
than try foreign-policy adventures or military interventions.
In this regard, the United States is culpable as its actions have
been central in destabilizing the Middle East, including the humanitarian
crisis in Yemen, and North Africa. Europe must revamp its foreign-policy
positions on the Middle East independent of the United States
– by helping countries resolve political tensions or violent
conflict, even if that means talking to governments they find
odious. It means keeping an eye on long-term economic, social
and political development, moving beyond current approaches to
aid with conditions and working with governments on their terms,
not dictating to them. In poor developing countries where there
is no outright war and collapse, Europe must refrain from encouraging
elites and intellectuals to seek a better life in the West, supporting
them to become armchair revolutionaries undermining the governments
of their home countries from afar. Instead, Europe should support
leaders to work within their countries and existing institutional
structures, with the goal of improving them over time. This means
abandoning the pretext of a higher moral ground when advancing
geopolitical and other interests.
the most effective action Europe can do to limit the flow of Syrian
refugees is to help end the Syrian Civil War – that requires
talking to President Bashar al Assad and involving him in reconstruction.
Europe will find willing partners in China, Japan, Korea and Singapore
to create jobs and restore confidence, peace, stability and economic
opportunity. Then the migrant and refugee flows will ease. People
will even return to avoid the indignities of being a “migrant.”
Europe would be the beneficiary of growing economies in the Middle
East and North Africa. Until then, refugees will keep trying to
escape devastation in Syria, Libya, Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan.
up walls and barriers to stop refugees fleeing devastation, while
refusing to talk to leaders or end conflict, only perpetuates
the refugee crisis and the ugly industry that has grown around
this human tragedy.
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