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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, April 23, 2021

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 Migrant Crisis of 2015 has long since abated, but European nativist and populist parties continue to attempt to stoke the popular backlash against immigrants to fuel their rise. Italy’s Matteo Salvini, the golden boy of Europe’s anti-immigrant populists, even rode the issue into government in 2018, before marginalizing himself with a bid to force early elections in 2019 and, more recently, misplaying the politics of the COVID-19 crisis. Nevertheless, Europe’s other far-right populists, like France’s Marine Le Pen, continue to hammer on anti-immigrant sentiment, hoping it will remain a potent issue in upcoming elections.

In the midst of a global pandemic, it is not clear it will have the same electoral impact as it did in 2015, when a wave of refugees and immigrants arrived in Europe from Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa. Still, the threat is enough to keep centrist governments toeing a tough line on immigration at home, even as they work with countries of origin and transit to restrict migration, thereby driving asylum applications back to pre-2015 levels.

Anti-immigrant sentiment was central to U.S. President Donald Trump’s winning 2016 campaign, and he subsequently reshaped American security policy around stopping illegal immigration. His administration even returned 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. The issue did not have the same resonance in the 2020 presidential campaign, though, in part because it was difficult for any issue besides the coronavirus pandemic to break through and capture attention. President Joe Biden has already rescinded Trump’s controversial entry ban on citizens of Muslim-majority countries, halted construction of Trump’s wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and promised a more comprehensive approach to addressing the root causes of the migration crisis. Whether or not that will be any more effective remains to be seen.

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 report, from June 2020, counted 79.5 million forcibly displaced people around the world at the end of 2019, up from 70 million in 2018. Among them were 26 million refugees and 45.7 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 to Europe falling, will right-wing parties still be able to use the issue for political gain? Will Biden’s new approach to migration policy be effective? How will the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout affect migration flows? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

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U.S. Asylum and Immigration Policy

In his four years as president, Trump sought to shut down migration across America’s 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 to do more, even as a surge in new arrivals at the Mexican border has put immigration back in the spotlight of America’s polarized political debates.

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.

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, 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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As the Biden administration takes over, the world is experiencing a sort of whiplash, as the United States performs a second about-face in its posture toward multilateralism in only four years. Although the U.S. has oscillated through cycles of internationalism and isolationism before, it has never executed such a swift and dramatic double-reverse. The Biden administration will repudiate the “America First” platform on which Donald Trump won the White House in 2016, and the hyper-nationalist, unilateralist and sovereigntist mindset that undergirds it. Such a stunning shift in America’s global orientation would have major implications for global cooperation on everything from climate change, health and nuclear proliferation to trade and human rights, as well as for U.S. relations with its Western allies.

The stage is set, in other words, for a massive reorientation in U.S. foreign policy. It remains to be seen if Trumpism will remain a potent political force, shaping Republican attitudes around foreign policy for years to come.

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

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