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The US and Europe fear a new refugee crisis

The diplomats who craft western foreign policies are preoccupied by Russia and China. But the international question that most worries their political masters is immigration. As one close aide to President Joe Biden puts if: “If we lose the next election, it’ll be over the southern border not Ukraine.”

The political pressure generated by migration is set to intensify in the US this week with the expiration of Title 42 — a pandemic-era policy that allowed for the swift expulsion of undocumented migrants on public-health grounds. American officials are braced for as many as 13,000 would-be migrants to cross the Mexican border every day — more than double the current number.

The White House is dispatching troops to the border to demonstrate its resolve. But Biden is also bracing for a political battering from Republicans.

The issue of refugees and migrants is also running hot in Europe. Italy’s prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, campaigned on a promise to curb flows across the Mediterranean. But the numbers landing in Italy are currently 300 per cent higher than the same period last year. Almost 40,000 have crossed so far this year and the numbers will rise with the calmer, summer seas. As in the US, the end of pandemic restrictions is playing a big part in the migrant surge.

In Britain, a promise to “stop the boats” of refugees crossing the Channel is one of the government’s five main pledges for the year. The numbers may be tiny by US standards, with 45,000 arriving in the UK last year, but they still make headlines.

War, social collapse and poverty are the main factors that drive refugees. But bitter experience in countries such as Libya, Lebanon, Mali and Afghanistan has made western countries increasingly wary of committing troops to try to stabilise failing states. No one is likely to suggest a foreign intervention in Sudan, as civil war engulfs the country.

The reality is that most refugees from countries such as Sudan, Syria, Venezuela or Myanmar are likely to end up in neighbouring countries rather than in the US or the EU. The arrival of millions of refugees fleeing war or economic collapse can then destabilise the recipient country. Lebanon’s near collapse as a state has been partly driven by its struggle to absorb 1mn Syrian refugees in a country of 5.4mn people.

Pointing out that poorer countries are bearing the main burden of sheltering refugees is unlikely to help western leaders win the political argument at home. The pressure to “do something” is huge; and so is the shortage of realistic solutions.

Rightwingers stress walls and deportations. The left tends to talk vaguely about economic development and “safe and legal routes” for migration. Development is much easier to call for than to conjure up. Safe and legal routes for migration are clearly desirable — but the number of potential migrants is always likely to exceed the number of visas on offer.

Governments of all stripes try to cut low-profile deals with countries that might agree to act as unofficial holding pens for refugees — such as Turkey, Mexico or Libya. In doing so, they increase the burden on those countries and hand enormous political leverage to leaders they are often uneasy about — such as Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

But there is little evidence that the most punitive solutions work better. Donald Trump was much more successful in cutting back on legal immigration than illegal migration. Australia’s hardline policies have inspired the UK government. But the Australian pushback depended on the co-operation of much weaker neighbours such as Papua New Guinea and Nauru. France will not be so accommodating.

The same societies that demand hardline solutions often recoil from their consequences. In the US, lawyers are still struggling to find the parents of 545 children separated from their families under Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policies of deportation.

When one country succeeds in implementing harsh policies towards refugees, they often simply displace the problem. Hungary’s harassment of refugees in 2015 was part of what persuaded Germany to open its borders. A visit to France by Italy’s foreign minister has just been cancelled after a row about migration.

Rather than bickering, countries badly need to co-operate. To have any chance of working, that has to involve the countries of origin, the countries of transit and the destination countries. And it needs a mix of liberal and conservative measures. Law-enforcement and intelligence have an important role to play in tackling people-traffickers.

And while vague talk of development is not much help to anyone, targeted projects can work. Kamala Harris, the US vice-president, is often accused of having failed to solve the problem on America’s southern border. But she has helped to create some unheralded public-private partnerships, which have led to billions of dollars of investment in Central America — giving some would-be migrants a reason not to leave home.

Reducing refugee numbers in a humane and effective way requires a painstaking combination of diplomacy, law enforcement and targeted development. Deportations and walls make better headlines, but worse policy.

gideon.rachman@ft.com

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