The future of American democracy may be decided by what happens on the Mexican border this year. That is to say, if the large constituency fearful about migration is unconvinced that President Joe Biden’s administration is implementing credible policies to control it, Trumpism could resurge big-time, at the midterm elections and thereafter.
Nor is this solely, or even principally, a problem for the U.S. In almost every advanced democracy, alarm about immigration is a major political issue. At next year’s election, it could make the right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen president of France. It contributed largely, perhaps decisively, to Britain’s exit from the European Union and Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s ascent to power. In countries as far apart as Australia and Sweden, established populations are troubled and divided by how many new people are enough.
“International migration has become increasingly weaponized,” says the United Nations 2020 World Migration Report. “It is being used by some as a political tool, undermining democracy and inclusive civic engagement.”
Whereas in 2000 there were estimated to be 150 million migrants — people living outside their country of birth — today the figure is 272 million and rising. In 1970, there were fewer than 10 million migrants in the U.S., which is overwhelmingly the global destination of choice; today there are 44 million. In Europe, there are 82 million migrants, representing a 10% rise since 2015.
And many, many more are coming, especially from Africa. There are estimated to be half a million currently transiting in Egypt, another 800,000 in Libya. “Migration from North Africa to Europe continues to be a defining feature of the migration dynamics of the region,” says the U.N. report.
Every developed nation has some sort of immediate Band-Aid policy for managing migrants, mostly related to keeping out as many as possible. President Donald Trump built his wall; Britain seeks to exploit Brexit and the English Channel; Australia removes unauthorized entrants; France houses North Africans in squalid banlieues.
What is lacking almost everywhere is governmental admission that this is not a short-term problem but a historic one. We are witnessing the beginning — and I use that word advisedly — of a vast movement, with boundless social implications, unless the nations of the rich world devise and implement far more imaginative and generous programs to reduce the incentives for people to quit their homelands in the poor world.
Professor Michael Howard, among the most brilliant historians and thinkers of his generation, told me a few years ago: “The migration from the Southern to the Northern Hemisphere that is now under way seems the most significant shift of populations since the early Christian era.” There seems every reason to suppose that he was right and to highlight the importance and urgency of creating radical policies to address it.
Two important points should be made at the outset. First, the causes and implications of migration are many and vary from one region to another. Second, the statistics given above and below derive from the U.N. and are the best available. Like all large numbers, however, they represent only informed estimates — rough guides to trends.
There is one obvious common strand in the journeys undertaken by so many millions, amid hardship and often at peril of their lives: Like migrants since the beginning of time, they hope to better themselves. Back in 1971, I made a film for BBC TV in Mauritania, western Africa, about a famine driven by drought across the Sahel region.
Working for days among tribesmen in remote places, I was conscious that they viewed me and my camera crew as they might visiting Martians: They had not the remotest conception of what manner of people we were, or what place we had come from.
Today, almost everywhere in the world, that absence of awareness is transformed. Even in many poor and remote societies, people have access to TV, mobile phones and the internet. They, especially the young, have a vivid grasp of what wealthy societies look like.
Encountering them in the midst of Africa, one is virtually kidnapped, sometimes by Kenyan Masai in full tribal garb, for impassioned conversations about English football teams. They know, as my Mauritanian acquaintances half a century ago did not, what we have and they do not. This is a powerful driver for attempted escape from their present into our future.
Most developed countries need some migrants to sustain their population levels, because of falling domestic birthrates and fertility. Moreover, remittances sent home by migrant workers to impoverished families at home — a global $689 billion in 2018 — make a critical contribution to the viability of their own societies, arguably more efficient than foreign aid.
Everyone but the most fervent libertarians, however, recognizes that the Western democracies would be overwhelmed if all those who wish to live among us should come to do so. The word “solution” is properly barred from debate about complex issues, from Middle East peace to climate change: There is no such animal. Instead, humankind is in the business of managing and mitigating its big difficulties, uncontrolled migration prominent among them.
The big beast in the story is climate change, to which we shall return in a moment. In the Northern Triangle of Central America — El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and parts of their neighbors — however, special problems exist that ought to be susceptible to foreign assistance and support. The near-collapse of governance, entwined with crime and corruption, have been overlaid on successive natural disasters.
The U.S. is sometimes believed by Europeans to have a high homicide rate, but it was a mere 5 in 100,000 in 2018, against Mexico’s 29, Belize’s 24, Honduras’s 38, Guatemala’s 22, El Salvador’s 52. Drug wars feature prominently in this carnage.
The implications of climate change for Central and South America are appalling. Both, together with the Caribbean, suffer the impact of increasingly frequent natural disasters — category 5 hurricanes, floods, droughts and consequent poor harvests. A projection published in Scientific Reports by scholars including two Brazilian researchers suggests that, by the end of the 21st century, the Southern Hemisphere could receive up to 30% less rain, if fears of a 3-degree Celsius rise in earth temperatures are realized.
Matters are worse, if possible, in Africa. Desertification is affecting huge areas at the center and west of the continent. Lake Chad’s volume has shrunk by 90% in the last 40 years, leading to hunger for an estimated 3 million of the region’s people.
Extraordinary measures and foreign assistance are already needed and will become more so, to discourage tens of millions of young Africans from leaving their homelands in search of better things — which can only mean heading north. As it is, since 1990 the number of migrants leaving the continent has doubled, to 10.6 million, most of whom have headed to Europe.
Conflict is, of course, another fearsome driver of departures. 6 million people have been displaced from war-torn Syria; many are drifting west through Turkey and Greece. In Africa, 3 million have been forced from the Democratic Republic of Congo. There are an estimated 71 million people uprooted worldwide. In 2017 an estimated 66 million people expressed hopes to move permanently to another country within 12 months.
The thrust of this barrage of numbers may be to convince you, as it certainly convinces me, that the issue of migration is not a temporary problem, but a vast and ongoing one, which can only worsen.
Aid is today widely viewed, especially by conservatives, as a thankless do-gooders’ gesture to the world’s corrupt regimes. Britain’s nationalist government has slashed the commitment of its predecessors to devote 0.7% of gross national income to foreign aid. The U.K. will in the future aim to spend 0.5% — against Germany’s 0.6%, France’s 0.44%, Japan’s 0.29%.
The U.S. gives much more cash — roughly $40 billion — but a much smaller proportion of its wealth. Polls show that most Americans guess foreign aid to account for a quarter of federal spending; they believe that it should be slashed to around 10%. In reality, the gross U.S. payout amounted to barely 1% of the government budget, around 0.18% of national income, before the COVID-19 pandemic kicked in.
Unless the rich world can assist the poor and threatened one to give its people reasons to stay home, its suffering millions will not “go West, young man” as once upon a time. Instead they will come north, with untold political and social consequences.
Max Hastings is a Bloomberg columnist. He was previously the editor in chief of the Daily Telegraph, and editor of the London Evening Standard. He is the author of 28 books, the most recent of which are “Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy” and “Chastise: The Dambusters Story 1943.”
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