Large-scale immigration, so long the hallmark of successful cosmopolitan societies in the developed West, threatens to fracture democracies in the old and new worlds. Across Europe and North America rising anti-immigration sentiment, driven by the number of asylum-seekers and undocumented labour migrants, is exacerbating divisions over identity, values and national security.
The outcome is likely to be a rejection of open borders and uncontrolled migration, and the repatriation of large numbers of ¬illegal migrants. Although memories of Australia’s boatpeople travails are fading from public consciousness, it would not take much for the asylum-seeker issue to reignite here.
How did we get to this point? The match that lit the fuse of European angst about the seemingly unending flow of unregulated migrants was Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 2015 decision to open Germany’s borders to asylum-seekers from Syria. This was a game changer, not just for Europe but for democracies everywhere.
It split the EU; pulled in large numbers of ¬asylum-seekers from Africa and Asia as well as the Middle East; overwhelmed the capacity of Germany and the frontline states of Italy and Greece; galvanised a new generation of anti-immigration leaders; raised anxieties about a loss of social cohesion; fuelled fears that terrorists would infiltrate Europe; undermined public support for established immigration programs; and supercharged people-smuggling syndicates criminally responsible for almost 13,000 dead or missing asylum-seekers.
Germans initially were supportive of Merkel’s decision. Barely 15 months later, 42 per cent of surveyed Germans considered refugees a threat to German culture, 56 per cent disapproved of Merkel’s handling of the issue and 70 per cent believed that refugees would increase crime rates.
A poll last week showed a further hardening of attitudes with 86 per cent of Germans favouring stricter repatriation rules for unsuccessful asylum-seekers.
An emerging axis of Europe’s anti-immigrant parties that includes Merkel’s Bavarian coalition partner, the Christian Social Union, is close to overturning the EU’s open-border policy, which has been central to the dream of an integrated Europe. Matteo Salvini, Italy’s powerful Interior Minister and leader of the anti-immigrant League, wants to turn back the boats and establish African processing centres in unmistakeable echoes of Australia’s policy that Europeans once ¬vehemently condemned.
In the US, Donald Trump initially tried to stare down a backlash against his decision to separate adult “illegals” from their children by attacking Merkel’s policy, tweeting: “We don’t want what is happening with immigration in Europe to happen with us!” Trump has branded asylum-seekers and undocumented labour migrants from Mexico and Central America as invaders who should be sent back immediately.
It’s all a reminder of what might be in store for Australia should Labor reverse its boat-turnback policy and commitment to maintain offshore processing.
Australians are broadly supportive of immigration, but concerns about the social impact of high levels of migration are growing. For the first time, a majority (54 per cent) of those surveyed in a recent Lowy Institute poll said “the total number of migrants coming to Australia each year is too high”.
The key policy question for government is whether public support for large-scale immigration can be maintained in a more hostile international political environment catalysed by Merkel’s unworkable 2015 policy.
Germany’s experience has four important lessons. First, with unprecedented numbers of people on the move, the well of potential asylum-seekers is bottomless. In 1975 there were only 2.4 million refugees in the world. By 2015, the number of what the UN calls “forcibly displaced people” was 59.5 million — one in every 122 people was a refugee, internally displaced or seeking asylum. It now has reached 85 million, not including undocumented labour migrants, millions of whom are working illegally in host countries.
The most generous policy will accommodate just a fraction of them. Advocacy of open borders is a dangerous form of gesture politics that does nothing to address the underlying causes, effectively cedes sovereignty to people-smugglers, encourages destination shopping and guarantees a political backlash that undermines support for controlled migration. Merkel belatedly has recognised her mistake, vowing that 2015 “cannot repeat itself”.
Second, most asylum-seekers are not genuine refugees. About 60 per cent of the asylum-seekers processed in Germany have not been given refugee status and face the trauma of deportation. A parliamentary report found more than 500,000 of those rejected for asylum still live in Germany, most of whom have been there more than six years.
Third, many of those advocating a more accommodating immigration policy ignore the heavy financial and social costs of dealing with mass inflows of asylum-seekers. Last year, Berlin allocated €21.3 billion ($33.45bn) for refugee and asylum-seeker assistance, more than the entire budgets for health or education. This could quickly blow out if proposed changes to EU rules allow extended family members to join successful asylum-seekers.
Fourth, there is a clear national security dimension to immigration policy. Sudden influxes of asylum-seekers are politically and socially destabilising and we know that terrorists have infiltrated Europe as “refugees”.
Policies encouraging unregulated migration, no matter how well-intentioned, end up causing more harm than good. This is true not only for receiving countries but also the many unsuccessful asylum-seekers whose journeys of privation are compounded by the ignominy of repatriation.
Any softening of asylum-¬seeker policy by Labor would seriously jeopardise its electoral prospects. It also would undermine public support for a controlled approach to immigration that overwhelmingly has benefited Australia without incurring the entirely avoidable deaths, and human misery, that are the unfortunate by-products of unregulated migration.
12:00AM June 27, 2018