As human tragedy meets anti-immigrant rhetoric, is there any hope that a way forward can be found?
Immigration, migration and emigration have existed since the beginning of life on this Earth. People have always fled their homes, towns and cities looking for something they could not find where they reside; be it food, security, freedom or a decent life.
Immigration nowadays, whether escaping war or looking for the means to have a decent life is by no means a favourable option to anyone. The vast majority of immigrants leave what they know and love for something they are absolutely uncertain about, as they venture somewhere they know hardly anything about: except that they may have a better life there.
Multiple political, security, economic or religious factors are behind these waves of uprooted refugees and immigrants fleeing their home country for countries they have only heard of.
Political and security reasons include genocide and ethnic cleansing, as was the case with Palestinian refugees in 1948 and the Rohingya refugees nowadays. It could be persecution and oppression, as with the Uighur fleeing the Xingjian province of China. This pattern is repeated throughout human history. During World War II, millions of Europeans fled their homelands for a peaceful refuge in the New World or even Syria, Palestine and Egypt (now exporters of refugees today).
Other reasons could be the economic stalemate at home, deadlocked beyond solution. Millions of youth spend years looking for the opportunity to build a decent life and end up exactly where they were when they graduated.
Nonsensically, they are expected to ‘do something about it’.
Mohammed al Bouazizi chose to set himself on fire, sparking the Arab Spring. Others choose to brave the tumultuous Mediterranean Sea and risk their very lives in search of a new life. Those who can afford to, apply for immigration to other countries. None of these people would go to the immense effort of migration were it not for the fact that they have reached a dead-end at home.
Why are immigrants viewed as a threat?
Studies show that people who take a strong stance towards immigration often come from very specific backgrounds and groups. The reasons behind the anti-immigration movement are still under-researched, but many hypotheses have tried to explain this phenomenon.
The main reasons were economic for some groups, political for others and ‘national’ for other groups. Those who come from disadvantaged or economically challenging backgrounds are more likely to see immigrants as a threat to their own source of income, while those who have high ‘nationalist’ sentiments would view any sort of migration or immigration as a deconstructor of national pride and a sense of unity.
All these factors can be utilised and wielded by contenders for power through delegitimising ruling elites, and this is when the role of employing social misconceptions (such as the ‘threat’ of refugees) becomes part and parcel of the propaganda machine.
Political and security reasons, such as national identity, loyalty, higher crime rates and the stability of the country—as well as the assumption that refugees or immigrants will isolate themselves in enclaves—are commonly employed by the anti-immigrant propaganda machines.
Yet, if we statistically scrutinise those arguments, we would be surprised that the outcome, if anything, is quite the opposite.
Little correlation exists between stability, crime rates and immigration, and any correlations that exist tie immigration to stability and economic productivity. As for loyalty and national pride, there is little reason to view those arguments innocently.
Why would someone who has left their home country and found refuge in another country that provided them with what they did not have at home, wish any harm inflicted on the new country? Are we not supposed to presume loyalty? Of all those millions of refugees and immigrants living in the new countries that hosted them, how many cases of ‘disloyalty’ have we seen?
Economic reasons, on the other hand, are more common among the less economically-privileged or those with fewer opportunities for education. People looking for employment would see ‘newcomers’ as competitors.
Others might fear that their welfare would be at risk, as their tax money would supposedly go to ‘newcomers’ instead of their welfare system. Again, studies and indicators have shown the opposite, especially in countries with high immigration or refugee rates. Innovation and entrepreneurship were boosted as well. Other studies argue that immigration has absolutely no impact. Either way, in these studies, no harm is inflicted on the host population.
Sadly, the arguments favouring and trying to justify anti-immigration are very similar to the view the bourgeoisie had of the poor during the industrial revolution.
Together with the aforementioned points, Europe—as a major importer of immigrants—has unique traits that drove certain sectors to fuel anti-immigration sentiments throughout the continent.
For centuries, Europe dominated the international scene in all aspects. This strength has since faded dramatically following the destructive Second World War, which some could say Europe has still not fully recovered from.
Of the world’s largest five economies by GDP, only one is European: Germany.
This, along with the European loss of vision and purpose, and perhaps the absence of a common threat perception following the fall of the Soviet Union, has left Europe psychologically fragile, and only reinforced its sense of insecurity. Its relatively small size and its ageing population have only exacerbated the situation.
Immigration in any form could never be a threat to Europe but rather has become an inevitable strategy to ensure sustainable development and continued economic prosperity. With the aforementioned points, it became easier by an order of magnitude for certain groups to manipulate these insecurities to orchestrate anti-immigration sentiments.
The fact that immigrants came from relatively different cultures and sometimes a different faith made it even much easier for manipulators.
Who benefits from xenophobia?
Anti-immigrant sentiment is mainly orchestrated to benefit the few. Yes, there are inherent societal psychological traits that should be considered, but an anti-immigration stance is by no means simply a self-agitating or natural social phenomenon.
It is and has always been manipulated and motivated by systematic efforts to maximise the effects of the phenomenon in for domestic politics. A look at the seasonal timing of the rise of these movements may provide a hint; anti-immigrant rhetoric fills the streets and TV screens whenever there are elections, and once over it disappears altogether or decreases sharply.
Most right-wing movements and parties have little to offer in terms of answers to stagnant development, job creation, foreign policy or even solving the major problems the country faces. Does this mean they have no chance of winning elections?
So long as the propaganda machine can distort facts and spread anti-immigrant sentiments, you need very little in the way of actual substantive policy.
The way forward?
So what can be done to mitigate the growing anti-immigrant movement all over the world? We have to deal with the challenge in terms of its actors as well as its methodology.
Actors, in this case, are states, the official enforcers of laws and civil society organisations, perhaps the only true advocates of human rights. At the state level, the most well-known instrument is the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention) of 1951 and then later on, in 1990, the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families was signed, but to enter into effect it had to wait until 2003, when the required threshold of 20 ratifications was met.
Ironically, none of the major importers of migrant workers has yet ratified it.
Either way, the Migrant Workers Convention and the earlier Refugee Convention lack any means of enforcement. Moreover, they have little to contribute to mitigating the root causes of refugee crises or immigration in general.
Civil society organisations, who don’t need to gain votes from the public, have always been the main advocates of immigrants. If it were not for civil society, many of the principles we take for granted today would not exist.
As for the methodology and nature of the action, we may be able to sum them up in two points; first, internal and foreign policy development, and second, legal mitigation.
The first one is a two-fold strategy. It requires that states and civil society actors both push for improving internal policies when it comes to immigrants and setting up campaigns and national projects for integrating immigrants into the society in which they live. This needs to take place alongside awareness campaigns on the reasons why immigrants are here while exposing the truth about the allegations of refugees causing economic hardship to the host country.
When it comes to foreign policy development, the performance of states has been disappointing with regards to major crises that led to mass waves of refugees. Myanmar, Syria, Libya to name a few, and the list goes on.
Legal mitigation can come through improving international conventions treating these issues or taking legal action in national and regional courts against violators of those conventions on the human rights of immigrants. Though I personally strongly support making violations of human rights punishable by the justice system, I still believe the first point (policy development) would yield better results in the case of immigration.
Finally, the Trump-like methods of blocking immigration or building high walls are the perfect example of the prevalent ‘eradicate poverty through killing the poor’ strategy. Aside from the fact that it horribly tarnishes the health of our humanity, and is certainly counter-productive, brutal and inhumane.
Immigration is not the problem - the factors that lead to immigration are the problem.
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