Commentary / World

Is there a solution to the problem of mass migration?

Europe's efforts must focus on addressing the root causes of the unfolding tragedy

by David Howell

A chilling figure is going the rounds — not at the official level but among expert analysts and consultants at informal seminars and discussions.

It is that the estimates so far of the likely flow of immigrants (both refugees and economic migrants) seeking to come to Europe from the African continent between now and 2020 is not the 1 or 2 million spoken of a few years back, nor yet the 6 million in more recent assessments, but 60 million.

Such is estimated to be the vast number of tragically disadvantaged people — men, women and children — from the North African coastal states (the Maghreb), from Africa south of the Sahara, and from the Horn of Africa and other regions who feel so totally uprooted and desperate, for any number of causes, that they are ready to start the dangerous journey north in hope of a better life in Europe.

And to these have to be added refugees fleeing the horrors of the Syrian civil war, and a host of refugees and migrants from as far afield in Asia as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

Such numbers are, of course, completely unmanageable and far beyond the capacities of European nations to absorb them. Already, the existing flows are causing major disruption and strain on the receiving countries, as well as imposing appalling suffering on the unending streams of refugees themselves.

Immense efforts, not always coordinated, are going into tackling the problem at every point along the chain from source countries to destinations. Cooperation with partners as far away as the Persian Gulf and South Asia is being pursued to somehow stem the tide.

Tens of thousands who have reached northern Europe have been taken in and resettled, but thousands more keep coming. Others have been halted at hastily constructed border fences in southern Europe and are piling up in miserable camps to which humanitarian aid is being channeled in growing volumes, but never enough to catch up.

In the Mediterranean, ships are patrolling to counter illegal migration operations, catch people smugglers, turn back some refugee boats — invariably overladen — and, most tragically of all, rescue survivors from flimsy and sinking craft. At least 2,000 have drowned in the first half of this year.

But still the sad flows continue, sometimes faster via one route, sometimes slowing and then starting up again — across to Turkey, Greece and the Greek islands, and then up through the Balkans, to Sicily and its islands, to Malta and to Spain and the Spanish enclaves on the North African coast.

Without doubt, many valiant attempts are being made to relieve the suffering.

But, of course, none of these activities address the root causes of the unfolding tragedy. The grand theory of development economists back in the mid 20th century was that if enough aid funds were poured into the lower income and undeveloped countries conditions would become more attractive and people would stay at home. Poverty, deprivation and violence would melt away.

Unfortunately, this overlooked the fact that not just cash but other ingredients such as good governance, absence of intertribal violence, the rule of law, and respect for private property rights and private enterprise were also needed, as advocated by the insights of the brilliant Peruvian economist Hernandez de Soto — a sadly lone voice among development experts.

Without this wider understanding, although many good and humanitarian projects were achieved, especially in health provision, reduced child mortality and famine relief, the outcomes were all too often swollen bureaucracies and fat private bank accounts for officials — rich governments and poor governed, rich rulers and poor ruled.

Add in the arrival of the information revolution, giving even the poorest a transparent and vivid view of their oppressors’ “comforts,” and seemingly showing how better life and opportunities could be in reach by traveling north, and the perfect recipe and incentive has emerged for the mass escape through migration that is now putting impossible pressures on the whole of Europe.

The only answer now is for the development economists to discard their failed blueprints and start afresh in a humbler mood, and in the realization that much more than economic theory and cash aid is required to create prosperity and make life tolerable for millions in poorer areas. Left-leaning economist have to discard their state-centered models, and right-leaning economists their free market simplicities. The problem, and the solution are both deeper than either.

Not only will there continue to be movements of people, in the age of the microchip and mass communications the world is inevitably going to be much more on the move than ever before.

But if the flows are to be checked, managed and minimized, the disruption to more advanced societies controlled and the pitiful plight of desperate refugees reduced, then real uplifting development — not the theoretical kind, but the kind that brings higher employment and higher living standards for all — must truly begin, especially on the African continent, where the population is set to rise vastly.

This requires enlightened support at every level. It requires the diversion of resources and creative effort from richer societies on a scale not yet imagined. It requires an expansion of trade and capital investment on an unprecedented scale. It requires persuasion and honesty from the leaders in the more advanced democracies and societies on a scale they have not yet dared to set out to their electorates and constituencies.

All along it has been a matter of survival for the millions in Africa and the war-torn Middle East, living without jobs or hope, on a dollar or so a day, sometimes not even that. Now it is becoming a matter for survival in modern Europe as well.

David Howell is a Conservative politician, journalist and economic consultant. He is chairman of the House of Lords International Relations Committee.