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

Migrants rest on a Mediterranea Saving Humans NGO boat, as they sail off Italy's southernmost island of Lampedusa, just outside Italian territorial waters, Thursday, July 4, 2019 (AP photo by Olmo Calvo).

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 has long since abated, and some of Europe’s leading figures on the far right from that time, like the Netherlands’ Geert Wilder, have lost relevance as a result. Nevertheless, other far-right populists—like France’s Marine Le Pen and, more recently, Eric Zemmour—continue to hammer on anti-immigrant sentiment to fuel their electoral ambitions. And Italy’s Matteo Salvini just made a comeback in recent elections and will likely be part of the next coalition government set to be led by Giorgia Meloni and her far-right, anti-immigrant Brothers of Italy party.

In the aftermath of a global pandemic that at least initially inhibited migrants’ mobility, it is not clear the issue will continue to have the same impact as it did in 2015, when more than 1 million refugees and asylum-seekers arrived in Europe from Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa. Still, the populist narrative of immigration as a threat is enough 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. And last year, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko demonstrated the continued salience of that “threat narrative” when he tried to “weaponize” migration by encouraging refugees from Iraq to travel to the Polish border, where many were left stranded in freezing conditions.

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, although the issue did not have the same resonance in the 2020 presidential campaign. President Joe Biden has already reversed some of Trump’s most controversial measures and promised a more comprehensive approach to addressing the root causes of the Central American migration crisis. But so far that has not been any more effective at curbing record numbers of arrivals at the southern U.S. border.

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 89.3 million forcibly displaced people around the world at the end of 2021, up from 82.4 million in 2020. Among them were 27.1 million refugees and 53.2 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 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 long-term impact will the massive wave of Ukrainian refugees have on Europe? Will Biden’s new approach to migration policy be effective? How will the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic as well as climate change affect long-term migration flows? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

Our Most Recent Coverage

International Law on Refugees Has a Climate Change Problem

The number of people displaced as a result of climate disasters and the slower-onset impacts of climate change is likely to grow, but legally speaking, there’s no such thing as a “climate refugee.” This begs the question: Are our current legal frameworks adequate to deal with climate-related displacement?

The Long Tail of the European Refugee Crisis

The pace of new arrivals to Europe has slowed significantly since 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 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 global refugee numbers 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.

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 U.S. More broadly, he also limited immigration of all forms, including by foreign students to U.S. colleges and universities. Biden has already reversed some of Trump’s more controversial measures. But he is under increasing pressure from his progressive supporters to do more, even as a surge in new arrivals at the Mexican border has put immigration back in the spotlight of Washington’s polarized political debates.

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 between 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.

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