Global Migration Is Not Abating. Neither Is the Backlash Against It

Global Migration Is Not Abating. Neither Is the Backlash Against It
Migrants, mostly Venezuelans, walk across the Darien Gap from Colombia into Panama hoping to reach the U.S., Oct. 15, 2022 (AP photo by Fernando Vergara).

Around the world, far-right populist parties continue to stoke the popular backlash against global migration, driving some centrist governments to adopt a tougher line on immigration. But with short-term strategies dominating the debate, many of the persistent drivers of migration go unaddressed, even as efforts to craft a global consensus on migration are hobbled by demands for quick solutions.

The European refugee crisis of 2015, when more than 1 million refugees and asylum-seekers arrived in Europe from Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa, has long since abated. But a recent surge in migration to Europe, often using dangerous and at times deadly crossings of the Mediterranean Sea and English Channel, is once again raising alarm—and tensions—across the European Union.

As a result, far-right populists, like France’s Marine Le Pen and the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders, continue to hammer on anti-immigrant sentiment to fuel their electoral ambitions. Wilders even notched a surprise first-place finish in last year’s Dutch elections, though he was subsequently unable to forge a coalition government to allow him to become prime minister. By contrast, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and her far-right, anti-immigrant Brothers of Italy party made migration central to their victorious campaign in the country’s 2022 elections. Meanwhile, the populist narrative of immigration as a threat continues to keep centrist governments toeing a tough line on the issue at home, even as they work with countries of origin and transit to restrict migration.

The issue’s political divisiveness is hardly limited to Europe. Anti-immigrant sentiment was central to former U.S. President Donald Trump’s winning 2016 campaign, and he subsequently reshaped U.S. security policy around stopping illegal immigration. The issue did not have the same resonance in the 2020 presidential campaign, however, and upon taking office, President Joe Biden promised a more comprehensive approach to addressing the root causes of the Central American migration crisis. But that effort has been overtaken by events, in the form of record numbers of arrivals at the southern U.S. border and dramatic shifts in the patterns of migration in the Western Hemisphere, both of which are putting U.S. border policy under unprecedented pressure. As a result, Biden’s latest attempts to curb asylum-seeking have begun to bear a close resemblance to Trump’s.

Try our Global Migration Chatbot! Ask it questions about events and trends related to global migration over the last few years and get answers drawn straight from WPR’s expert analysis.

With political debates over migration often dominated by short-term strategies, many of the persistent drivers, including persecution, conflict and war, go unaddressed. The United Nations Refugee Agency’s most recent figures counted 108.4 million forcibly displaced people around the world at the end of 2022, up from 89.3 million in 2021, with the increase largely due to the wars in Ethiopia and Ukraine. Among them were 35.3 million refugees and 62.5 million internally displaced people. While global leaders might seek to curb migration by spurring economic growth, they cannot ignore the role played by conflict and persecution, which often make asylum-seekers unable to return to their home countries. Meanwhile, there has also been little global focus on future drivers of migration, including climate change.

Efforts to craft some kind of global consensus on migration—like the U.N. Global Compact on Migration, which several countries, including the U.S. under Trump, backed out of—are similarly falling victim to the same forces demanding quick solutions to a complex issue. In the meantime, the trend among wealthy countries to force refugees and asylum-seekers to await the processing of their claims in third countries—or in some cases, like the U.K.’s proposed deportation scheme with Rwanda, to seek asylum elsewhere—is threatening the very principles of international humanitarian law that underpin the refugee and asylum system.

WPR has covered migration in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next. What role will immigration play in upcoming elections for the European Parliament? Will Biden pay a political cost for his approach to migration policy in November’s presidential election? How will climate change affect long-term migration flows? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

Our Most Recent Coverage

Migrants Aren’t the Only Ones Who Need Help in the Darien Gap

There is no silver bullet for solving the humanitarian challenge on display in the Darien Gap, which thousands of migrants pass through daily. But any solution must involve creating sustainable economic opportunities for residents of border towns, so they are not drawn into the lucrative business of human smuggling.

U.S. Asylum and Immigration Policy

In his four years as president, Trump sought to shut down migration across the United States’ southern border and drastically reduced the number of asylum-seekers and refugees allowed into the country. Biden reversed some of Trump’s more controversial measures. But despite pressure from his progressive supporters to do more, he has now begun to harden his policies in the face of a surge in new arrivals at the Mexican border that has put immigration back in the spotlight of Washington’s polarized political debates.

The Long Tail of the European Refugee Crisis

The pace of new arrivals to Europe slowed significantly after 2015, due in large part to a series of measures countries like Turkey and Libya have taken to block refugees and migrants from reaching the continent, in exchange for concessions and aid from the European Union. But those arrangements have come under fire from critics who accuse Europe of turning a blind eye to inhumane conditions and human rights abuses faced by refugees in both countries. And the recent surge in migration to Europe underscores the fact that, absent improved conditions in countries of origin, those schemes are ultimately ineffective. Ironically, despite the political demonization of migrants, many European countries are likely to become dependent on immigrants to replenish domestic workforces as domestic birth rates fall.

Refugees & Long-Term Displacement

The surge in the number of global refugees points to both a proliferation of conflicts and humanitarian crises, but also the failure to resolve long-standing crises. From Syria to Afghanistan, local, regional and international actors have been unable to craft solutions that will allow people to return to their homes. These persistent refugee populations are putting a strain on neighboring countries. The coronavirus pandemic only exacerbated the precarious conditions many of them live in. Now the war in Ukraine has created a refugee crisis “made in Europe.”

South-South Migration

While the influx of immigrants to Western countries receives much of the global attention, this ignores the fact that most migration takes place between countries in the same region. That has put a significant burden on states that border conflict zones, like Uganda, which sits alongside both South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the absence of international attention and assistance, some countries have introduced innovative strategies for integrating refugees and migrants. But others have pushed back against their commitments under international law and may be forcing refugees and asylum-seekers to return to dangerous situations.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in July 2019 and is regularly updated.