In Europe and the US the migratory surge of the last decade has provoked profound institutional and political crises. It has overwhelmed existing systems for processing undocumented immigrants and asylum-seekers. It has given new life to xenophobic nationalist movements and brought their leaders to power. And until recently it has left progressives in Europe and the US flatfooted, unwilling or unable to define and defend the new approaches needed to meet the new situation.
In America, the Democratic Party remains unwilling to think seriously, in public anyway, about immigration reform. But recently, the Spanish Socialists, in power since June of this year, have begun to articulate a substantial response to the crisis, one that claims to chart a middle course between the xenophobic reactions of the right and the unrealistic calls for “open borders” emanating from some parts of the left.
Yet the Spanish approach is not without problems of its own. It draws on a wider and more problematic EU strategy articulated in response to the huge surge of refugee seekers and migrants in 2015. The first goal of this strategy, as the the Guardian described it last year, is to stop migrants from the Middle East and Africa before they reach the EU border, the second to build “a new Marshall Plan for Africa” so that Africans will be able to stay at home.
Part One: What Sanchez has said
Pedro Sanchez, the recently installed socialist prime minister of Spain, took two decisive steps on immigration in June 2018. The first was to offer safe harbor in Spain when more than 600 migrants and asylum-seekers aboard the Aquarius, an NGO rescue ship, were denied the right to disembark in Italy. When the Aquarius reached Valencia on June 17th, huge dockside banners reading “Welcome Home” in a range of languages greeted its passengers. The event was widely covered in Europe and provoked an immediate backlash from the Spanish right, which warned that Sanchez’s actions would only embolden more asylum seekers and irregular immigrants to set sail for Spain. Then, on June 27th, Sanchez took the opportunity of his first interview as prime minister to focus squarely on the problem of immigration, which until then the Socialists, like the Democrats in the US, had been trying to evade. The approach he announced challenged both the right’s calls simply to close the borders and its representation of the Socialists as the party of free access for all.
“From now on,” Sanchez declared, as if to acknowledge the left’s prior negligence, “we have to articulate a sensible politics of migration. It’s evident that we’re not going to open the frontiers: that’s unviable. What we have to do is deal wisely with the migratory flows that are going to be a reality for the foreseeable future.” “A country like ours with 47 million inhabitants,” he continued, “has a Gross Domestic Product superior to the total GDP of 30 African countries with more than 1.2 billion inhabitants. The demographic reality of an African country such as Senegal, where more than 60% of the population is less than 25 years old, is the reality in which we are going to have to move, that we’re going to have to manage.”
In a speech to the Spanish Congress only a few days later, Sanchez set out a set of guiding principles for this daunting challenge. The formula he proposed, explains a recent article in El Confidencial, “is to act with ‘solidarity,’ ‘responsibility,’ and ‘empathy.’ . . . Solidarity so as to extend our hands to the other and avoid humanitarian tragedies, responsibility in order ‘not to fall into the temptation of proposing the impossible,’ a temptation that only that winds up feeding the discourses [of the right], and empathy in order to understand the reasons of the other.” The “other” referenced under the heading of “empathy” includes, I’d suggest, not just the migrants but domestic others: the 47% or so percent of Spaniards who want to check the flow of immigrants and asylum-seekers.
Sanchez makes several important claims and concessions in these brief remarks. For one thing, he acknowledges that the existing Spanish and by extension EU immigration mechanisms cannot cope, conceptually or practically, with the challenges posed by the surge in asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants. There is plenty of concrete evidence to support his claim. No less an authority than Filippo Grandi, the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees, offers corroboration: “In 1951 [when the UN’s course-setting Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees was framed] one of the main refugee problems . . . was refugees coming across the Iron Curtain. So there was a strong focus on individual cases fleeing the Soviet Bloc.” The system designed to deal with this problem, Grandi continues, worked for years “when numbers were small.” But when people started coming in large numbers, that is, over the last decade or so, “then the system collapsed.”
The vetting system prescribed in the 1951 Convention is indeed cumbersome. Any undocumented migrant who sets foot on the territory of a signatory nation has the right to apply for refugee status. An applicant cannot be sent back across the border until after his or her case has been reviewed, investigated, decided, appealed and reviewed again if refuge is denied. In the meantime, asylum-seekers must be held in detention for as brief as possible a period (Spanish law allows 72 hours).
Given these regulations, it’s easy to imagine the chaos that ensues when hundreds or even thousands of migrants reach a reception center and request asylum on a given day or week. (In Spain, because of constraints on detention, many asylum petitioners are released into the general population even before being identified or given a substantial interview.) According to El Publico, more than 65,000 who have requested asylum are currently waiting to have their requests processed by the Office of Asylum and Refuge. The Office’s permanent staff of 113 is charged “with studying and processing each request for asylum, conducting interviews with the petitioners, [and] coordinating with other refuge offices of the EU, among many other duties.” Spain’s backlog, however, is as nothing compared to that of the US, where currently over 700,000 asylum seekers are awaiting resolution of their petitions. Many of these, knowing that their petitions will be denied, simply disappear into the general population.
Grandi’s explanation for the failure of the system fashioned by the UN—an unanticipated flood of asylum seekers—hardly absolves that organization from responsibility for the collapse. Why, after a decade of war that saw whole populations of displaced persons wandering across Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Atlantic, did the UN choose to focus on the problem of individual asylum seekers? Why did it fashion a narrow definition of refugees as individuals seeking asylum for “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion,” ignoring the claims of those endangered and displaced by war or extreme poverty? And why did the EU and the US base their own immigration codes and institutions on this flawed foundation?
Sanchez’s second crucial observation is that the growth of migrant flows is being fueled by profound demographic and political forces that are destined to remain in play for some time. Here again he is on firm ground. Population has surged not only in Senegal but across sub-Saharan Africa. The Economist reports that, “In 1950 sub-Saharan Africa had just 180 million people—a third of Europe’s population. By 2050 it will have 2.2 billion—three times as many as in Europe.” Uganda’s population, for instance, has grown from about 5 million in 1950 to about 45 million today. (If the US had grown as rapidly, our current population would be about 1.25 billion.) The vast majority of Ugandans are young (about 50% of the population is under 15); the average percentage throughout sub-Saharan Africa is 43%, compared to the US’s 19%.
To make things more difficult, this explosive population growth has occurred within a context of very slow job growth. Somewhere between 60 and 80% of young Ugandans are unemployed today. Nor, say economists, is job growth across sub-Saharan Africa likely to accelerate in the near future. Yet the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) predicts that there will be 800 million more individuals in the working age population by 2055.
Elsewhere, in Asia, the Middle East, and Central America, political instability and chaos are producing other migrant flows. So, for instance, WOLA, the Washington Office on Latin America, reported last February that there has been a “a sharp rise in asylum seekers from Central America’s Northern Triangle region (Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador) . . . . [M]ore individuals from the Northern Triangle region sought . . . asylum in the United States between 2013 to 2015 than in the previous 15 years combined.” And of course the wars in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya generated the surge of asylum seekers that produced the 2015 crisis in Europe.
Sanchez seems right again to contend that these realities make any call simply to open borders, any representation of the migration surge as merely temporary, unrealistic. And this claim too is corroborated by reputable population studies and polls. A 2017 Pew Research Center survey of public attitudes in six sub-Saharan countries found that when asked “whether they would go to live in another country, if they had the means and opportunity, [at] least four-in-ten in each sub-Saharan country surveyed answered yes, including roughly three-quarters of those surveyed in Ghana (75%) and Nigeria (74%). In Senegal (with a population of 16.3 million), Ghana (29.5 million) and Nigeria (195 million), more than 33% say they have made concrete plans to migrate in the next five years. For these reasons, the NBER’s demographic report concludes, “Europe . . . will face substantial demographically driven migration pressures from across the Mediterranean for decades to come.”
These statistics all lend weight to Sanchez’s argument that the migrant crisis can only be managed, not resolved. But the language of “management” is ominous indeed: it suggests ethical compromise, undemocratic intrusion, the colonialism of aid and indirect intervention. So for instance the good news, in the Socialists’ talk of solidarity, responsibility, and empathy, comes for refuge seekers and migrants under the heading of “solidarity”: they will not at least be demonized as thieves, murderers, and terrorists and as many as possible will be accommodated. But the bad news comes under the heading of “responsibility.” Not all legitimate asylum-seekers, by any means, can expect to be welcomed; there is just not enough room to open the door to all, and to try would provoke a domestic backlash that might well close the door to all. In acknowledgement of this, Sanchez has emphasized, in subsequent speeches, the urgent need for Spain and the EU to provide more development aid to the countries of Africa.
Several questions arise. Is this the best that that Spain can be expected to do in the face of the situation at hand? And is it indeed doing its best, by these standards, or are the claims of measured solidarity and management merely concealing a course of action very close to that of the EU after 2015? It’s too soon to say, perhaps, but early indications are, again, ominous. The options available to the Socialist government for dealing with the crisis at its borders are limited by the EU and Spanish laws based on the UN Convention described above. In spite of these constraints, however, the government has begun to practice forms of “devolucion caliente,” (hot return) that deny would-be asylum seekers due process. And in a practice some on the left criticize as a “sub-contracting” of the work of blanket refusal and return, the Socialists are forging agreements with Morocco aimed at preventing migrants from ever reaching the Spanish border. Instead, those approaching Spain from the African south are turned back by security forces in Morocco itself or deterred from crossing in the Mediterranean by Moroccan naval forces. Then they are detained in Morocco until they can be sent south to the sub-Saharan nations from which they came. The Moroccans, in other words, are being funded by Spain to practice a mass form of devolucion caliente. If this is the extent of the Socialists’ plans for managing migrant flows, then these amount to little more than the construction of another sort of Wall.
But at the very least, with his recent public declarations, Pedro Sanchez has helped Spaniards understand the powerful forces at work creating recent migrant surges. He has insisted that would-be immigrants and refuge –seekers should be treated with respect and sympathy, both those who will and those who will not be granted entry. His words establish standards of conduct that are already being used to question some of the steps taken by his party. At the same time, he has reached out to those Spaniards shaken by the influx of so many migrants, assuring them that their fears of excessive immigration will be taken into account.
America’s Democrats, in contrast, have as of late November made no progress on these fronts. During the recent midterm elections, the party’s declared tactic for responding to Trump’s obscene campaign of vilification and fear-mongering was to “change the subject.” That is, to mumble something about America as a “nation of immigrants” and about the need for some unspecified “immigration reform,” and then to “pivot” to discussing health care. A renegade wing of the party, meanwhile, went on piling wood on Trump’s bonfire with talk of “open borders” and the simple “abolition” of ICE, the enforcement wing of the immigration service. This approach will not do. Let us hope that American progressives will make use of the Spanish Socialists’ example, both its strengths and weaknesses, in developing a humane response to the immigration crisis on, beyond, and within our borders.