By Benjamin Ward
The way people actually live, Niccolo Machiavelli famously argued, is so different than the way they should live, that if we focus only on the way things ought to be done and ignore how they are actually done, we will find ruin rather than preservation.
It’s not hard to imagine Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini or Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban nodding with approval at the sixteenth century author, widely regarded as the godfather of political realism.
After all, polls suggest that people across Europe see migration as a key concern. Politicians running on anti-migration platforms have won recent elections in Italy, Hungary and Austria. And as a recent meeting of EU leaders showed, efforts to agree on a common European policy seem to come down to the notion that someone else, outside Europe, should take responsibility for migrants and asylum seekers.
So realism must mean that the correct response to irregular migration is to seal Europe’s borders, and process those who try to reach Europe in camps far from our shores?
Not so fast. There are more realistic and better alternatives.
Sealing borders encourages smuggling—as with the illicit drug trade, the price goes up, bringing new actors into the market. When people are fleeing violence or feel they have nothing to lose, closing the door in one location often leads them to try other more perilous routes.
Curtailing search and rescue by nongovernmental groups in international waters off Libya, as Italy and Malta are currently doing, makes the sea more deadly. Those governments contend that they are deterring people from making the journey, in effect consigning some to drown so others might live.
But the data does not support claims that rescue by these groups encourages more people to try the journey. Research also suggests that migrants are willing to take enormous risks in part because conditions in Libya are so horrific. The real result of stopping rescue by these groups will simply be more senseless and cruel deaths at sea.
What about offshore processing? In theory, asylum seekers can have their claims determined in any country with a proper asylum system and adequate resources to humanely treat people. But in practice few if any of Europe’s neighbors meet that test. And to deter secondary movement to Europe, most proposals involve creating offshore detention camps. We know from Australia’s experience that such camps become places of despair and suffering.
In any event, no country in Europe’s neighborhood has yet proven willing to host such a detention camp. Given the disaster that would likely ensue they are right to say no.
What about the argument that we must keep people away, because that’s what voters want, and if we don’t take a tough line, the xenophobic populists will win, and we will lose the Europe founded on shared values we care about?
Confront the manufactured crisis of the populists, explain that Europe’s duty to help some of the world’s refugees is a core value, create flexible legal avenues for labor migration, invest in integration for those who will stay, and have a credible strategy for safely returning those who have no right to stay, and you can win people round.