Why the West is hardening stance on migrants

The tough stand echoes resentment of the local working class which feels left behind in globalisation and right-wing groups keen on protecting their ethno-cultural heritage. If President Trump does not win the 2020 election, extreme antipathy against illegal migrants will change, but liberal acceptance won’t come back.

Yogesh Gupta
Former Ambassador

In May this year, US President Donald Trump threatened to impose 5 per cent tariff on Mexican exports to the US if the country did not step up efforts to prevent illegal migration to America. President Andres Lopez Obrador buckled down and sent 6,000 National Guards with personnel of the army and the navy to Mexico’s southern borders to arrest, deport or hold illegal migrants. On October 18, a chartered flight brought 311 deported Indians from Mexico to New Delhi, most of whom were from Punjab and Haryana and had reached Mexico after paying huge sums of money to agents in the hope of entering the US. Another flight with 150 deported Indians from Mexico landed in India on November 20. The deportation of two planeloads of illegal migrants in such a short time revealed how sharply sentiments had hardened against them in the US.

According to the US Border Patrol, there has been a significant increase in the number of Indians illegally entering the US from just 77 cases in 2008 to 8,997 apprehended in 2018, though the total illegal migrants entering from all countries in the US declined from about 1.6 million in 2000 to about 5,20,000 in 2018. Similarly, the number of illegal migrants entering Europe has declined sizeably from about one million in 2015 to 1,44,166 cases in 2018 (figures from the International Organisation of Migrants).

Hardening of public opinion against migrants in Europe intensified after the arrival of a large number of Afghans, Iraqis and Syrians seeking  asylum in 2012 followed by the 2015 crisis when more than a million migrants and refugees, mostly Muslims, fleeing war, conflict and poverty in Syria and other parts of the Middle East arrived in Europe. This influx provoked the rise of right-wing populist parties in France, the UK, Denmark and Germany which were elected on opposition to the increasing number of foreigners and insensitive ruling elite. They insisted that the European governments must pay more attention to the concerns of the local working class, welfare benefits should be reserved only for them (excluding immigrants) and ethno-cultural structure and heritage of the European countries should not be altered (in other words, limit the number of foreigners).

The working class in Europe and the US has emerged as the harbinger of opposition to illegal migrants, complaining that they had increased pressures on their jobs as they were ready to work at lower wages for longer hours. Also, the Muslim migrants did not share their cultural values and some were involved in terror incidents in France, Germany, Belgium and the UK. Resistance and opposition was less in those European countries whose economies were growing faster or who were able to integrate the migrants well or where the local working class was not impacted due to its graduation to higher or distinct skills.

Trump skillfully exploited this growing resentment against the migrants by promising to the American workers that he would build a substantial wall on the US-Mexican border with Mexican money, cease financial support, carry out mass deportation of illegal aliens, put limits on even legal migrants, including a pause on granting ‘green cards’, actions which he has since carried out. Trump wants to make America ‘great by keeping it white’, removing all illegal migrants and reducing the number of foreigners. The swelling tide of anti-immigrant racist sentiments in Europe and the US certainly strikes a blow to the development of progressive, cosmopolitan and multicultural societies; the people of Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria can rightfully claim that the US and some European countries did play an important role in their destabilisation and exodus of people. Fortunately, this animus against migrants is not shared by the Democrats; the Democratic presidential candidates have promised to decriminalise migration and outline a path for some illegal migrants (those with needed skills or advanced degrees) to get the US citizenship. 

Even if Trump does not win the next presidential elections in 2020, there are several factors which will militate against the acceptance of high numbers of migrants by the US and Europe in future. 

First, the US-China economic and strategic rivalry and gradual decoupling has accelerated global economic downturn reducing demand for goods and services; the declining economies will need lesser workers, not more; preference would be given to locals and not migrants. 

Second, the adoption of emerging technologies like artificial intelligence will further reduce the number of workers required in many workplaces.

Third, ever larger number of refugees, displaced persons and migrants from failed states or those stricken by war, violence, famine or adverse climate changes, eg Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, Venezuela, Honduras, Guatemala and others are now seeking asylum in rich countries. 

Fourth, the share of global GDP is shifting increasingly in favour of the Asian countries such as China, India and others and away from the US and Europe due to changing demographics; therefore, future demand will increase more in Asian countries.

 Canada is one developed country whose economy is still expanding at a decent pace, which still takes pride in its multicultural character, has integrated the migrants well and is still open to accepting semi-skilled (truck drivers, industry workers) and skilled migrants, including professionals, businessmen and students, though in a legal manner. With Mexico deploying its armed forces to track and hound illegal migrants, Mediterranean countries disallowing NGOs to rescue boats laden with migrants, and rich countries becoming selective in taking only highly skilled migrants, the risk reward ratio in favour of illegal immigration has sharply gone down. The prospective migrants should, therefore, acquire basic skills and explore legal channels of migration to countries which are still welcoming them rather than putting their lives and families’ life-long savings at risk in undertaking hazardous overseas travel with a dangerous and uncertain fate.

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