Few problems trouble wealthy democracies today as much as uncontrolled migration. Public concerns about incoming migrants drove the British vote in favor of leaving the European Union and facilitated the ascent of former U.S. President Donald Trump. Today, a rise in migrant arrivals at the U.S.-Mexican border is creating political turmoil for U.S. President Joe Biden. Whether they are fleeing persecution, driven away by natural disasters, or searching for economic opportunities, migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees all find themselves unwelcome in the global North. 

Rather than confront the domestic roots of growing public anxiety about migration, liberal democratic countries have externalized the problem. Increasingly, they rely on countries in the global South to host migrants and refugees or otherwise prevent them from journeying onward to wealthy nations. Although this strategy may be politically attractive, conditioning development aid and outsourcing asylum to try to reduce irregular migration is not viable in the long run. Migrants and refugees end up stuck in countries ill-equipped to integrate them—and with no immediate incentive to improve their lot. And so the drive to seek a better life elsewhere remains. In the end, the only way wealthy states can “solve” the problem is to make regular avenues of migration more accessible. 

THE PATH TO SUPERFICIAL REFORM

Europe has led the way in building a comprehensive system to keep migrants out. In 1985, when the European Union created the Schengen area—an internal zone of free movement that now includes most of Europe—it also took steps to seal off the continent from external migration. New policies granted fewer visas for non-EU nationals, fortified border walls, expanded patrols of the Mediterranean, and ramped up biometric surveillance systems. Even more important—although less visible—is the way that the EU has worked in partnership with eastern European, Balkan, and North African countries on its periphery to amplify its efforts. Reports of abuse in these arrangements are rampant, including a recent New Yorker exposé of the “brutal system” of militia-run prisons that detain migrants in Libya to prevent them from entering Europe. But Brussels has persisted in offering large sums of money or enhanced diplomatic relations to bring neighboring governments onboard with Europe’s migration preferences. Together, these policies have made it increasingly expensive and difficult for all kinds of migrants to reach and remain in EU countries. 

In Europe’s view, containing migration elsewhere is a positive development. If migrants and asylum seekers could be convinced to stay in third countries rather than crossing the Mediterranean, the EU would not have to address the political repercussions of large-scale arrivals. And if Middle Eastern and North African countries could be convinced—whether through trade deals, visa liberalization, or development aid—not just to host asylum seekers but to develop structures to support them long-term, then everyone involved would win. But there is a problem with this type of thinking: it fails to account for either the incentives of host states in the global South or the conditions required to build strong asylum systems.

When wealthy liberal democracies have successfully reformed migration and asylum systems, it has often been the result of legal challenges from civil society groups and trade unions that seek to advance the rights of noncitizens. But in nondemocratic states that lack strong or independent judiciaries and constrain civil society, similar incentives are unlikely to drive policy change. Semiauthoritarian governments, however, can still care about the outward appearance of democracy and human rights. Regard for their respective global images was enough to compel migration and asylum reform in Morocco and Turkey, for example. Both governments sought to avoid international shaming, gain diplomatic benefits, and quell domestic critics. Ultimately, both Morocco and Turkey viewed migration reform as a bargaining chip. And once they cashed in, neither government had any reason to fully implement the new policies. 

The desire for easy answers to rising migration has only intensified.

In 2013, Morocco adopted a migration policy commended by UN and EU officials as welcoming and inclusive. By allowing irregular migrants the opportunity to obtain residency permits and taking responsibility for refugees, the Moroccan government claimed to be responding to civil society demands for more humane migration policies. But my research shows that international shaming was really what motivated the change. The government did not want its image as a moderate, human rights–abiding state to be tarnished in front of a UN forum convened to address Morocco’s treatment of migrant workers. Moreover, the reforms allowed the government to co-opt critical nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and migrant community groups and furthered Morocco’s economic and geopolitical ambitions in migrants’ countries of origin in West Africa. Senegalese President Macky Sall, for instance, had visited Rabat two months prior to the policy announcement to discuss the treatment of Senegalese nationals in Morocco. Taking action on the issue helped Morocco solidify the two nations’ diplomatic and economic ties—and retain Senegalese support for Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara. But in spite of the fanfare around the 2013 reform and further measures adopted in 2014 and 2016 to grant residence and employment status to migrants, the government did little to meaningfully improve conditions for migrants and refugees. Morocco remained unlivable for many who faced threats of violence and racist treatment from both security forces and the host population. Even though migrants stayed longer in the country than before, many still hoped to make Europe their final destination.   

Turkey liberalized its policies for similar reasons. In the early part of the twenty-first century, the possibility of acceding to the EU provided the initial impetus for the Turkish government to update its piecemeal migration and asylum legislation. Even after EU negotiations collapsed, Turkish leaders remained sensitive to perceptions of Turkey in Europe. After Turkey’s mistreatment of asylum seekers led to high-profile cases before the European Court of Human Rights, the Turkish government launched a major reform process in 2008. The law that eventually passed in 2014 received praise from UN and EU officials who cited its “rights based” approach to migration and asylum. One of the most important changes was the creation of a new civil body, the Directorate General of Migration Management, to replace the Turkish police as the institution responsible for all migration and asylum matters. The liberal policy eased the way for an EU-Turkish partnership on migration in the years that followed—an arrangement in which Ankara received substantial financial assistance and diplomatic concessions. But as in Morocco, Turkey’s new law did not drastically alter conditions on the ground for most migrants and refugees, whose livelihoods continued to depend on participation in the informal economy or assistance from NGOs. And when the uprising and subsequent civil war in Syria drove record numbers of refugees into Turkey, the new law was not enough to protect large numbers of Syrians from being forced back to Syria in 2019 or pushed into Europe in 2020.

EUROPE’S PLAYBOOK GOES GLOBAL

In destination countries, the desire for easy answers to rising migration has only intensified. Facing a large and sudden increase in the number of asylum seekers in the summer of 2015—and unable to agree on a political solution that would accommodate the new arrivals internally—Europe turned to a familiar playbook. In November 2015, the European Commission adopted a joint action plan with Turkey in an effort to stem the crossing of Syrian refugees into Europe. By March 2016, the EU and Turkey reached a deal that allowed Greece to return Syrian refugees to Turkey. Since 2015, the EU has also directed billions of euros in the form of development aid to countries across Africa with the aim of decreasing migration. The tactics are not new, but Europe has pursued riskier, more brazen, and more expensive deals out of desperation and fear, all with an aim to keep newcomers out and transform its neighbors into migrant and refugee host states.

The system has expanded as new partners are lured in by Europe’s increasingly attractive offers. Egypt, for one, signaled its interest in opening discussions with Europe on migration policy when it passed an antismuggling law in 2016. In 2017, Egypt effectively halted the departure of boats carrying migrants, garnering praise from the EU. In 2018, Sebastian Kurz, then chancellor of Austria, hailed Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as “an example” for his efforts to curb irregular migration and smuggling, and UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi has publicly applauded Egypt’s hosting of refugees. Following in the footsteps of Morocco and Turkey, Egypt has even begun to develop a domestic asylum law that, Europe hopes, will result in fewer migrants and refugees traveling onward to the EU. In turn, European financial institutions have offered soft loans and grants worth hundreds of millions of euros to fund development projects in Egypt in recent years, including a 60-million-euro EU grant in 2017 to “help Egypt deal with the pressures of hosting migrants and refugees.” The flow of European money will continue to inoculate the Egyptian government against international criticism for its human rights abuses (which have worsened under Sisi’s rule), all in the name of migration prevention. As for the migrants and refugees who will end up residing semipermanently in Egypt, Europe’s attention and funding have done little to incentivize policies to facilitate their long-term integration. 

Governments must focus on making more regular migration routes available to more people.

Offshoring migration policy has become standard practice along other migration routes, too, not just in the Mediterranean. Australia has persuaded Papua New Guinea and Indonesia to hold back migrants hoping to reach its shores. And the Trump administration negotiated safe third-country agreements with El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, allowing the United States to return asylum seekers to these countries, and made U.S. aid conditional on their governments’ effective curtailment of irregular migration.    

The Biden administration has continued this approach, pledging funds to help its southern neighbors provide for asylum seekers. Among the recipients is Mexico, which changed its domestic asylum law in 2014 to allow individuals with refugee status to apply for residency and access employment, health care, and education. Those reforms were implemented unevenly, however, and simply throwing money at the problem is unlikely to fix it, as an ineffective system will not compel asylum seekers to stay put. Biden’s promise of $4 billion in aid over four years to address the “root causes” of migration in Central America, including corruption, gang brutality, and gender-based violence, reflects a similar disconnect. It may improve the lives of Central American residents, but it will not significantly reduce migration; in the short to medium term, economic and human development is instead likely to increase an individual’s ability and aspiration to migrate.

FINDING REAL SOLUTIONS

If states in the global North truly want to reduce irregular migration, they must stop relying on measures that are billed as “solutions” but solve nothing. Instead, they must focus on making more regular migration routes available to more people. Governments need to drastically increase the availability of visas—especially those that do not require high levels of wealth or education to obtain—and of refugee resettlement slots. This may seem like a difficult task at the political level. Migration and refugee resettlement have lately become highly politicized, with politicians and media “securitizing” migration—that is, presenting it as a threat to the public and inseparable from illicit activities such as drug smuggling, terrorism, and human trafficking. Yet the politics may not reflect the reality of public opinion. In the United States, at least, respondents in 2020 preferred more immigration, not less, for the first time in Gallup’s history of polling on the issue. 

Still, depoliticizing migration and refugee resettlement policy will require a process of “desecuritization.” In other words, political leaders must assure the public that new arrivals—whether Haitians at the U.S.-Mexican border or Afghan refugees flown in for resettlement—do not represent a dangerous threat and that managing migration is part of normal government operations. Their success will depend on the cooperation of the news media. Journalists should avoid labeling every uptick a “crisis” and steer clear of words such as “surge,” “wave,” “streaming,” “pour,” or “deluge” to describe people arriving at the border. Rather than simply communicating the gravity of the situation, these metaphors unnecessarily stoke fear—and push political solutions further out of reach. An increase in migrant arrivals should instead be described as just that—an increase—and journalists can convey the scale of the uptick by reporting the actual number of individuals involved. 

Ultimately, governments must also narrow the global mobility divide. Over the past half century, it has become easier for citizens of wealthy countries in the global North to cross international borders, whereas citizens of countries in the global South, particularly in Africa, have seen their own access to visa-free travel stagnate or diminish. The international visa regime has effectively preserved the hierarchy of a colonial order and made citizenship the determining factor in regulating the global movement of people. A U.S. passport holder, for example, can currently travel to 187 countries without first obtaining a visa. A Sudanese or Lebanese passport holder can travel to 41 countries, nearly all of which are in the global South. Without access to mobility, people are more or less stuck with the opportunities they happen to be born into. And visa regimes are blunt instruments, preventing the migration of both those seeking opportunities abroad and those fleeing violence, war, persecution, or climate change. With so few options to migrate regularly, individuals from countries lower on the hierarchy end up traveling irregularly. To ease this pressure, the leaders of wealthy nations must lower the barriers to entry for the rest of the world’s population, drastically increasing opportunities for education, work, and family reunification and ultimately expanding access to visa-free travel. Only legal mobility will finally stop people from seeking extralegal routes. 

For now, officials in wealthy liberal democracies see containing migrants and refugees or offshoring systems of asylum as easy political wins. Leaders claim that they are acting in the best interests of migrants and asylum seekers, sparing them the perils of a cross-border journey, but in reality these policies trap migrants in countries that are not prepared to protect or assist them. Although such strategies may temporarily reduce arrivals or divert migratory routes, they do not offer long-term solutions. As long as migrants and refugees are left without viable means to rebuild their lives, the pressure to move will remain.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now