When I asked immigration experts this week which country is the shining example of how to handle asylum-seekers—where, in other words, the United States could look for best practices—some said Canada, others Sweden. But I didn’t hear many unequivocal endorsements.
Absorbing asylum-seekers has been a challenge ever since the United Nations developed a convention on refugees in 1951. But, according to FitzGerald, “it hasn’t been as big of a challenge in the countries that dominate the world until more recently”—a period in which more people are displaced than at any time since the wake of World War II.
There’s long been a “grand bargain … between the rich countries of the Global North and the poorer countries of the Global South,” FitzGerald explained: “The Global North pays for refugees to be housed in other countries in the Global South and in return takes a symbolic number of them through refugee-resettlement programs.” But lately that bargain has broken down as a substantial number of asylum-seekers have gotten past the “obstacle course that’s deliberately been put in their way” and requested refuge on the territory of wealthy countries. “People are trying to reach Europe, trying to reach Australia, trying to reach North America,” he observed. And nobody in Europe and Australia and North America has quite figured out how to respond.
In Europe, officials have sharply reduced an influx of unauthorized Middle Eastern and African migrants and asylum-seekers from hundreds of thousands in 2015 to tens of thousands today by essentially “stopping the flow before it reaches European shores,” according to Solon Ardittis of the U.K.-based research company Eurasylum. The European Union has poured billions of euros in financial aid and technical assistance into countries that these migrants have come from and traveled across, including Turkey and several African nations such as Ethiopia and Mali.
The good news is that these countries of origin and transit have become partners in policing borders, combating human-smuggling operations, offering would-be migrants economic opportunities, and taking back migrants who don’t qualify for asylum in Europe. The European approach of striking migration deals with upstream nations is “fully replicable” in the United States, Ardittis said, though it might require, say, better relations between the Trump administration and the Mexican government than exist at the moment. (“Who’s going to build the Wall?”)
While the United States since the Bush administration has worked with Mexico and Central American nations to stop unauthorized migrants before they reach the U.S. border, the Trump administration has not devoted serious resources to helping “prevent people from leaving in the first place” by creating the economic and security conditions that make them think, “‘Yeah things are pretty lousy here, but a new factory is opening up, there’s some more opportunity for [job] training, the state is a bit more powerful and it’s protecting us better than it used to protect us,’” said Demetrios Papademetriou of the Migration Policy Institute. (Instead, the Trump administration has proposed cutting foreign aid to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.)