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Migrants rest on a rescue boat, as they sail off Italy's southernmost of Lampedusa. 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).

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

Friday, May 22, 2020

Around the world, the popular backlash against global migration has fueled the rise of far-right populist parties and driven 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.

Around the world, migration continues to figure prominently in political debates. In Europe, far-right populist parties have used the Migrant Crisis of 2015 and latent fears of immigrants to fuel their rise and introduce increasingly restrictive border policies in countries, like Italy, where they entered government. The popular backlash against immigrants has also pushed centrist governments to adopt a tougher line on immigration at home, while working with countries of origin and transit to restrict migration, whether through improving border controls or strengthening economic incentives for potential emigres to stay in their home countries.

In some places, the strategy appears to be working—for now. In Europe, asylum applications have dropped back to pre-2015 levels, when a wave of refugees and immigrants arrived on the continent from Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa. In the United States, President Donald Trump’s pressure on Mexico to secure its southern border also appears to have stemmed the flow of refugees and migrants attempting to make it into the country. More recently, the Trump administration has begun returning asylum-seekers to the Central American countries they transited on the way to the U.S. border, despite the lack of security that is driving people to flee those countries.

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 counted more than 70 million people who were forcibly displaced in 2018—the highest number officials had recorded in nearly 70 years. Among them were nearly 26 million refugees and more than 41 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. There has also been little global focus on future drivers of migration, including climate change.

Meanwhile, efforts to craft some kind of global consensus on migration are falling victim to the same forces that are demanding quick solutions to a complex issue. Following America’s lead, several countries backed out of the U.N. Global Compact on Migration, which was ratified in early 2019, despite it being only a nonbinding framework to help address some of the key issues surrounding the global migration boom—including how to institute policies that ensure people on the move are treated humanely.

WPR has covered migration in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next. With migration levels falling, will right-wing parties still be able to use the issue for political gain? How will Turkey’s increasingly antagonistic relationship with the EU affect its agreement to block a popular migration route? Will migration dominate the upcoming U.S. presidential election? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

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The European Migrant 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 despite the political demonization of migrants, many European countries are likely to become dependent on immigrants to replenish domestic workforces as birth rates fall.

The U.S.-Mexico Border & Central American Migration

Trump appears to want to end all migration across America’s southern border and has pressured Mexico to block immigrants and refugees from reaching the United States. Already a centerpiece of his presidency, the issue of migration across the Mexican border, most of which now originates in Central America, is likely to be at the heart of his upcoming reelection bid.

Refugees & Long-Term Displacement

The surge in 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 to South Sudan, 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 and, in some situations, like the flow of Venezuelan refugees across South America, sparking xenophobic attacks. The coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated the precarious conditions many of them live in.

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.

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

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