The world has entered a new era of mass migration. More than six million refugees have fled Ukraine since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, while 5.5 million have left Syria since its civil war began in 2011, and 2.7 million have left Afghanistan since the Taliban returned to power in 2021.
Yet far from being exceptional, such geopolitical shocks are only likely to become more frequent in future decades. The climate crisis, conflict and extreme poverty will all increase migratory flows. As Robert D Kaplan, the American author and foreign policy expert, writes in our cover story, “While the fate of Europe seems today to lie in the east, in Ukraine, as the century progresses it will increasingly lie in the south, as steady migration from south of the Sahara takes hold… Africa will loom larger in our consciousness as we increasingly comprehend how we are all part of the same human family.”
All Western governments, whether of the left or the right, are struggling to adjust to this reality. In the Netherlands, Mark Rutte, the longest-serving prime minister in Dutch history (having entered office in 2010), was forced to resign last month over government splits on asylum policy. In Poland, which has settled 1.3 million Ukrainian refugees, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has this August pledged to hold a referendum on whether the country’s voters are willing to accept “thousands of illegal immigrants from the Middle East and Africa under the forced relocation mechanism imposed by European bureaucracy”.
[See also: Anarchy unbound: The new scramble for Africa]
In the UK, meanwhile, the government has pledged to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda (a plan first mooted by Denmark’s Social Democratic government in 2021). Since this policy remains legally disputed, ministers have resorted to housing asylum seekers on barges, with the first being the Bibby Stockholm docked in Portland Port, Dorset. Yet, as Anoosh Chakelian reports, the scheme farcically unravelled when those on board were evacuated after traces of Legionella bacteria were found in the boat’s water system.
This episode fits a pattern of broken promises and false solutions on immigration in UK politics. New Labour vowed to provide “British jobs for British workers” and predicted that only 13,000 eastern Europeans would migrate to the UK per year (an estimate more than ten times short).
Successive Conservative governments pledged to reduce net migration to “tens of thousands” a year – a target they never came close to meeting. Owing to the UK’s economic reliance on migrant workers and lucrative foreign students, net migration reached a record high of 606,000 in 2022. As a consequence, Rishi Sunak has focused political attention on uncontrolled small-boat crossings across the Channel.
The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the legality of the Rwanda plan in November. Even if approved, the policy is a populist gesture masquerading as a solution. Rwanda’s limited processing capacity means it will only be able to manage a small fraction of the UK’s asylum applicants (at an extortionate cost of £169,000 per person). Nor is the plan likely to serve as a deterrent to those already willing to risk their lives to reach Britain – as the death of six Afghan men on 12 August tragically demonstrated.
The government would be better served devising practical solutions. It should invest more resources in reducing the asylum backlog of around 136,000 people. Since asylum seekers are barred from working in the UK, they are entirely reliant on the state for financial support and accommodation – a fact routinely exploited by demagogues.
But the only sustainable solution to the challenge of immigration is an international one. Rather than acting in isolation or offering ad-hoc responses – such as Angela Merkel’s welcome to Syrian refugees – European countries must agree consistent principles for asylum policy (the UK, which ranked 16th for asylum applications in 2021, does not bear a disproportionate load). One option, as with the UN’s foreign aid target of 0.7 per cent of GDP or Nato’s defence-spending target of 2 per cent, is for a quota system to establish the share of asylum seekers nations should accept. In an age of political fragmentation and populism this may appear unachievable. But the alternative, as new threats and conflicts multiply, is anarchy.
This article appears in the 16 Aug 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s War on the Future