Wanted: A humane and sustainable policy on refugees
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In the United States and Europe, the rising number of refugees is prompting a political backlash. How can a humane policy be made politically sustainable?
It was that the economically developed nations of the West are facing migration pressures that are in some ways different from those addressed by the bedrock U.N. convention seven decades ago, when the main concern was to accommodate displaced survivors of World War II and the Holocaust.
And Western governments, across the political spectrum, are struggling to deal with those pressures.
For Ms. Braverman’s government, the main concern is the “small boats” – carrying thousands of refugees braving the English Channel in the hope of securing asylum in Britain.
Countries on the southern edge of the 27-member European Union are preoccupied with the far larger numbers making the even riskier, often fatal, voyage from North Africa across the Mediterranean.
For U.S. President Joe Biden, it’s the near-record numbers attempting to cross the southern border from Mexico.
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The British minister was wrong to imply, in her speech to the American Enterprise Institute think tank, that most of these 21st-century migrants are not really refugees in the terms defined by the U.N. convention – with a “well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”
Britain’s own immigration officials last year accepted the asylum claims of 76% of those applicants whose cases they processed.
And within Europe, just as in the early 1950s, the most recent surge in refugees has been caused by people fleeing war: above all those from Ukraine, but also, over recent days, ethnic Armenians fearful for their future after Azerbaijan took control of Nagorno-Karabakh.
New forces challenging West
Still, there are indeed new forces driving refugees northward from Latin America toward the United States, and, in even greater numbers, from Africa toward Europe.
They include civil wars, ethnic conflicts, the ravages of climate change, and failed or autocratic governments. These are often to blame for the loss of livelihood and poverty that make the journey north seem worthwhile.
All of this, moreover, has provided a desperate client base for a burgeoning, cynical, and highly profitable international industry: people trafficking.
So how can, and should, Western governments respond?
The U.N. refugee agency, which took the extraordinary step of publicly rebuking Ms. Braverman for her speech Tuesday, says one key part of the solution is to apply the treaty’s “underlying principle of responsibility-sharing,” under which countries should coordinate and jointly resettle refugees.
That’s something the EU has been trying to achieve this year, but so far it has had little success. By far the largest initial burden has been falling on Italy and Greece; a reception center on the Italian island of Lampedusa was briefly overwhelmed this month by a surge in arrivals from Tunisia.
Yet while the economic logic suggests the EU’s “responsibility-sharing” should work – mainland Europe has a declining birthrate and shortages of workers in a number of sectors – the real obstacle to a coherent response, in Britain and the United States, too, lies elsewhere.
It lies in the politics, more than in the policy details. Voters may see the benefit in immigrants, who do jobs that others won’t, but many of them do not support immigration.
For many right-wing politicians, the priority is not to accommodate the new surge in refugees but to block it, or at least limit and deflect it.
“Basic rule of politics”
Ms. Braverman says her hope is to see all the “illegal” arrivals from across the channel automatically denied asylum, detained, and “swiftly removed,” either back to their home countries or to a “safe third country.” Britain has sealed an agreement with the African state of Rwanda to deport them there, but that has been held up by the British Supreme Court.
For more centrist or left-of-center leaders, like Mr. Biden, that kind of approach has long been anathema. His political record suggests he would far rather see a broader, bipartisan reform of immigration policy.
But given the potential voter appeal of Republican Party front-runner Donald Trump’s hard-line anti-immigration message, the former president will find it hard to ignore another of Ms. Braverman’s political arguments.
“It is a basic rule of politics,” she said in Washington, “that political systems which cannot control their borders will not maintain the consent of the people.”
That may be true. If so, it carries an inescapable corollary: The elusive formula for a humane and politically sustainable Western welcome for this century’s refugees will have to satisfy the concerns of politicians on both the left and the right.