Earlier this month, in the space of 24 hours, two diametrically opposite approaches to migration were expressed by two leading political figures. First was Antonio Guterres, the current United Nations Secretary-General and former UN High Commissioner for Refugees, who described migration as a factor that “powers economic growth, reduces inequalities and connects diverse societies.” Guterres was presenting to the General Assembly a new in-depth report, “Making Migration Work for All,” in which he outlined the immense benefits of migration, especially when conducted in a safe and orderly manner.
The second approach was expressed by US president Donald Trump, whose mother originated from Scotland and whose grandparents came from Germany. In a meeting with US lawmakers, President Trump allegedly described El Salvador, Haiti and certain African countries as “shithole” states. This was part of a considered discussion on a proposal to restore protections for immigrants from those countries, aimed at a bipartisan immigration deal. He went on, according to some participants in this meeting, to say that it would be nice if the US could attract more people from countries such as Norway.
The overt racism of Trump’s alleged remarks escaped no one, although sadly it surprised no one either. But there is a much more profound issue here, and it is the lack of recognition of the role of migrants in society, and worse, their constant vilification. Such an attitude is especially shocking when it emanates from a country that was founded by migrants, who were often refugees and who built their host country into a superpower. Ironically, it was in Trump’s home city, New York, that the Declaration for Refugees and Migrants was adopted, back in 2016, by the UN General Assembly. The declaration, unanimously adopted by all 193 member states, is an important recognition that migration is and always has been an integral part of humanity, deriving from people’s search for new economic opportunities and horizons, or for a refuge from armed conflict, poverty, food insecurity, persecution, and all other kinds of human rights violations and abuses. To halt immigration would mean to banish human curiosity and ambition for a better life, as well as to prevent a person’s natural right to escape the most difficult hardships and horrific crimes inflicted on them.
In 2017 alone, more than 258 million people moved across borders in search of better or safer lives — this was an increase of about a third on the beginning of the millennium. Xenophobic rhetoric, prohibitive policies and extremely risky journeys have failed to prevent the movement of people over great distances. Such journeys are not only due to the initiative of individuals who are escaping danger or attempting to improve their lives, but equally are being encouraged to meet the economic needs of the target countries. Without ignoring the political, social and even economic challenges presented by migration in an era that is still defined by nation states and nationalism, it is apparent, for those who care to look at the facts, that migrants make immense contributions to both their countries of origin through remittances, and through their hard work to the economies where they end up residing, temporarily or permanently.
To halt immigration would mean to banish human curiosity and ambition for a better life, as well as to prevent a person’s natural right to escape the most difficult hardships and horrific crimes inflicted on them.
As the new report rightly states, “migration is an engine of economic growth, innovation and sustainable development.” From hi-tech to construction and from culture to the food industry, migrants make enormous positive contributions. Successfully achieving many aspects of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development requires migration. Last year, remittances were expected to reach nearly $600 billion, which amounts to three times the world’s total development aid. A migration strategy that takes into consideration both the needs of the target countries and of migrants can only improve both sides of the equation. The myth of a lack of capacity is due to the absence of a global strategy that would take a positive view of migration and clearly identify its pressure points and locations where migrants can integrate easily into the socio-economic system.
But, in the rush to provide economic justification for migration, we should not forget that there are those who are forced to leave their homes due to conflict, persecution or natural disaster, and to whom our civilization has a moral obligation. These survivors of misfortunes brought about through no fault of their own deserve our help and compassion. Many of them have suffered greatly and to be met by an international community that turns its back on them results in further unnecessary and unjustifiable pain for young and old, women and men. They are longing for the world to show them its humanity and permit them to become an important and integral part of those societies that grant them a safe haven.
It would be naive, in a world obsessed with fear of the other and where unscrupulous right-wing leaders blame migrants for all their own countries’ shortcomings and difficulties, to imagine that there is any blueprint or magic formula to persuade everyone of the overwhelming benefits of migration. However, a concerted effort by the international community to enable legal migration on a scale that reflects labor demand and supply, and the setting of mechanisms to enable newcomers to immerse themselves in their new communities without losing their identity, would mitigate the anti-migrant discourse and go a long way toward that target.
Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.