Manhattan Institute

The Migrant Question

Western nations are fracturing on the issue.

Europe, despite its Union, is as divided as ever. Recently, when Italy’s new right-wing government—anxious to prove its credentials—refused to allow a boat carrying 629 African migrants to dock in Italy, Spain’s new left-wing government—equally anxious to do the same—accepted the boat. When the French president, Emmanuel Macron, criticized the Italians for their decision, the Italian government accused the French of hypocrisy, inasmuch as they had refused to take more than 9,000 migrants from Italy that they had previously agreed to accept.

This story is revealing in several aspects. The first is that, whatever attitude governments take to the migrants, no one truly believes that they are more of an asset than a liability. Madrid’s action, for example, was taken on “humanitarian” grounds, rather than because it believed that Spain would benefit from the migrants’ presence. When European leaders discuss the migrant question, it is always in terms of sharing the burden, not the assets, equitably. No one speaks of foreign investment in this way, which suggests that European politicians believe, whether rightly or wrongly, that the free movement of people and capital are different in an important way.

The leaders speak of sharing the burden, then, and are incensed when countries such as Hungary and Poland refuse point-blank to take any migrants from Africa or the Middle East. But I have never seen mentioned in this context the question of where the migrants themselves want to go. They might as well be inanimate toxic waste as far as the discussion is concerned, rather than human beings with wishes, desires, ambitions, and so forth. They are but pawns in a political game. Hungary, for example, is deemed duty-bound to take x number of migrants: no one asks whether x number of migrants can be found who want to go to Hungary. Nor is the question ever discussed in public whether Hungary, having open borders, would be held responsible for making the migrants stay there once they had arrived. Short of penning them in, how exactly would you keep them in Hungary, or in Poland?

Of the 629 migrants on the boat that Italy turned away, more than 100 were unaccompanied minors. Since they arrived in Libya—their point of departure for Europe—from West Africa, organized, expensive, and lucrative people-trafficking must be involved. Moreover, once they are landed in Europe, their right to family life—the life that domestic legislation in many European countries has been dedicated to smashing up—will be recognized, thus justifying, or mandating, yet more arrivals.

The migrants in the latest spat were rescued by the boat of a non-governmental organization dedicated to saving them from floundering in the Mediterranean. In a way, this is typical of modern philanthropy: you do good by making others pay for it, by imposing financial burdens or obligations upon them that they have not chosen. Of course, to rescue drowning people is humanitarian: the question that the present Italian government asks is whether the supply of rescue creates the demand for it.

The Italian coalition is unstable; many believe that it won’t last long. A new government might reverse the policy, at least in appearance, if not in substance (it is clearly popular). The fracture that the migrant problem exposes is not only between countries, but within them. We are seeing this dynamic play out now, throughout the West.

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