Wake up: Nobody wants migrants or refugees
Galvanized by intemperate tweets from President Trump, the political left in the United States has taken a stand in favor of welcoming more migrants and refugees — although not to the point of having “open borders.” Maintaining the historic flow of migrants and refugees is a politically “liberal” position, but it is arguably not a smart or necessary position.
Look around the world. How many countries want to receive more migrants and refugees? The short answer is very few, if any. One example is Japan, whose population has been shrinking as deaths each year have exceeded births for more than a decade. For the first time, Japan is seriously considering welcoming foreigners to its shores — but as temporary workers, not as migrants or refugees.
In the past 20 years, there has been a profound change in sentiment around the world on the cross-border movement of people. The reasons for this change are numerous. Perhaps the most superficial reason is the experience of Europe with the flood of migrants and refugees from the Middle East in 2015. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed to accept a million of them — a decision she now must regret. But it’s a reason that has been echoed in the populist and nationalist movements that are on the ascendant far beyond Europe.
A less superficial reason is the pervasive anxiety that has emerged out of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the global financial crisis of 2008. Together, these events have contributed to a high degree of uncertainty about the future of family life, especially in the culturally leading high-income countries. Compounding this uncertainty, a technology revolution is disrupting expectations of full-time employment with benefits, and the social media are hollowing out the political center. The result is a growing fear of “the other” represented by migrants and refugees.
A deeper reason is associated with a core concept of economics: supply and demand. This reason is easier to see if one takes the goal of economic policy to be a rising sense of well-being instead of measured GDP growth. For the low-income half in every country, more income generally is associated with a stronger feeling of well-being. Most migrants and refugees add to the labor supply in this half of the population and, therefore, tend to depress wages. This is grossly oversimplifying the argument, but it is where a smart liberal policy toward migrants and refugees starts.
Still, the deepest reason for anti-migrant and refugee sentiment is climate change. Unless the scientists are insanely wrong, climate change over the next 50 years — in the lifetime of our children and grandchildren — will be driving migrants and refugees well beyond any flow experienced before. This flow will be exacerbated as global population rises from 7 billion today to a projected 9 billion to 10 billion in 2050. There are no more empty spaces in the world to which people can move. We live in a world with a “No Vacancy” sign at the front door.
If these observations are valid, the only credible liberal answer to the migrant/refugee challenge is a set of policies designed to discourage — but not stop — the flow.
To succeed, the thrust of such policies will have to focus on the source countries that are driving migrants and refugees outward. These countries mostly are “failed states” to some degree. They are countries where governments are unable to provide sufficient physical security and economic well-being. In addressing the case of the “caravan” of migrants and refugees from Central America to the United States, this approach was convincingly presented a year ago in an op-ed by former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz and former Mexican Finance Minister Pedro Aspe in the Washington Post.
The post-World War II order regrettably has failed to make “good governance” universal. It has managed to avoid, so far, a nuclear holocaust but seems to be losing the campaign to achieve global peace. More than ever, it is important to understand why conflict and chaos prevail in the scores of countries that are producing most migrants and refugees, and what can be done to restore order and stability. Unless we can diagnose it correctly, and address it skillfully, the problem is bound to get worse as climate change bites.
A first step in mitigating the migrant/refugee problem could be to stop trying to duplicate the American political system in countries with cultures that seem to be rejecting it in the manner of a virus attack. A more promising approach would focus on “good governance,” recognizing that the political systems capable of producing good governance are culture dependent and that they will vary from country to country. Another part of such an approach would be to recognize that political systems must evolve over time as the society they serve advances. Otherwise, they will become sclerotic and start failing.
At the same time, the world will have to double down on mitigating the climate change that is starting to become a visible factor in the flow of migrants and refugees. It’s the only way to avoid the grim fate for Earth so graphically portrayed in William Vollmann’s two-volume opus, “Carbon Ideologies.”
Lex Rieffel is a nonresident fellow with the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center in Washington.