Immigration has evolved into a defining issue of national politics in most western countries, dividing liberals from populists and globalists from nationalists. Policy in this area is increasingly intertwined with border security, foreign relations, economics, trade and social integration. Governments can no longer simply tweak the criteria for the number, type and national origins of the persons they intend to admit as immigrants.

Today immigration must be seen in an international context, and nations must aim to balance the interests of both sending and receiving countries. Policies governing the two streams of immigration — refugees and voluntary immigrants — need re-examination.

Recent refugee crises have already shifted the parameters of immigration policy, notably in response to the global trends and international events of the past decades. The long wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East, the turmoil and climatic catastrophes of Central and Western Africa, the crime and oppression of Honduras, Guatemala and recently Venezuela have displaced millions. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that the number of forcibly displaced persons in 2017 was 68.5 million. This number is increasing year by year.

Though most refugees seek shelter in neighbouring countries, the dramatic arrival of boatloads of asylum seekers on European shores and the “caravans” of Central Americans heading to the US southern border have triggered populist reactions in these countries, arousing anti-immigration sentiments and roiling national politics. Canada has not been immune from these sentiments, despite its reputation as an immigrant-welcoming country. The Conservative Party is demanding that asylum seekers who cross the border outside the official points of entry be barred.

Countries have moral, legal and international obligations to fairly adjudicate asylum claims in order to protect persecuted and endangered people whose life or security is in jeopardy. There is also a humanitarian imperative to take in persons in extraordinary distress. Yet these obligations have political underpinnings. Usually liberal and socialist groups favour accommodating refugees, and some even advocate for open borders, whereas nationalists and right-wing conservatives demand secure borders and limits on asylum seekers.

These political divisions have sharpened in recent years, and the political parties opposing refugees have made major gains in most countries. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has paid for her acceptance of a million refugees by her party’s losses in state elections. Italy has elected a government that has barred rescue ships from entering ports. President Trump is adamant about building a wall on the southern border.

Neither barring nor opening up entry into Western countries can solve the overall problem of asylum seekers. It has to be addressed at the source. Many countries are riven by rebellions, terrorism, ethnic and religious violence, poor governance, climatic disasters and poverty. On top of these internal disorders, foreign interventions and invasions (as in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia) are turning millions into refugees. These events that cause people to leave their homes have to be dealt with by the concerted but non-military efforts of major powers in the interest of global order.

A consensus is emerging that refugees should be protected in and near their homelands. The recently negotiated Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, while holding refugees and migrants to be entitled to universal human rights, commits its signatories to create conducive conditions “for people to lead, peaceful, productive and sustainable lives in their own country” (objective 2, paragraph 18).

A UN body should be ready to temporarily administer a part or the whole of a country where the government fails to protect its people. For this purpose, the Trusteeship Council, initially formed to administer territories in transition from colonialism to independence, could be revived in a new role. It may set up international rule temporarily to establish order and safety and help people stay in their homeland or nearby.

But a stable social order in a Southern country should not be disturbed even if its government is less than democratic, except if it is carrying out ethnic or religious genocide. The lesson of the Western military interventions in the Middle East and Africa is that they tend to turn into unending wars, producing refugees.

The second stream of immigrants is of those selected by Western countries for their skills, professional talents and entrepreneurship. The US admits about 1.1 to 1.3 million permanent residents per year. Canada, with a population less than one-tenth as large, takes in more than 300,000 immigrants and another 300,000 or so temporary workers per year. The UN’s Population Division estimates that in 2017, 258 million persons were international migrants, apart from millions of expatriate workers. In 2017, Gallup estimated that worldwide 700 million would like to migrate. Obviously not everybody is packed to move, but potentially there are millions aspiring to migrate.

Legal immigration has its own policy challenges. It creates a brain and talent drain in sending countries; in the short run, remittances bring a financial infusion and benefit individual migrants, but in the long run, out-migration takes away people who could have contributed to the prosperity and stability of those societies. The vicious cycle of the brain drain is that as the more qualified and enterprising people leave, more aspire to follow them, draining away prospective nation builders. A stable world order in which all countries may prosper requires that the development needs of the sending countries should be balanced against the demand for immigration in the receiving countries.

Within Western countries, the aging and potentially shrinking population is driving the demand for migrant workers. The economic and demographic interests of these countries are the pull factor for immigration, but the resulting dilution of their social, cultural and ethnic composition of nations arouses resistance. Canada, for example, may be a more prosperous country with a majority of its population foreign-born, but it will be a different country. A new entrant in Canadian politics, the People’s Party of Canada, led by Maxime Bernier, demands that immigration should not “forcibly change the cultural character and social fabric of Canada.” Balancing the conflicting demands is a political challenge that will not go away.

Advancing technologies are introducing a new consideration. Automation and artificial intelligence are expected to make 40 percent of jobs free of human labour. Is it desirable for countries to bring large numbers of immigrants into a volatile job market, where job security may be scarce and human labour not in high demand?

In a world of global trade, the movement of people cannot be restricted. What may become necessary are new forms of citizenship and different sets of residents’ rights. In the policies of the near future, immigration may no longer be viewed as the transfer of a population stock from one country to another; the new model may be one of migrants circulating among countries, with associated rights of settlement and movement. Such an approach to immigration may change the idea of nationhood itself.

Photo: A Central American migrant rests at a shelter in Piedras Negras, Mexico, on February 10, 2019. Some 1,700 migrants seek to legalize their stay in Mexico with humanitarian visas from the municipality of Piedras Negras, on the border with the United States, as a step prior to trying to move into the US. EPA/MIGUEL SIERRA

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Mohammad Qadeer
Mohammad A. Qadeer is professor emeritus in geography and planning at Queen’s University. He is also the author of Multicultural Cities: Toronto, New York and Los Angeles.

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