I don’t think it’s only because my internship in migration has made me more attentive to the issues; migration is in the limelight across the world in an unprecedented way. Recent statements and subsequent actions from England and America, supported by many of their constituents, have created gut-wrenching, visceral reactions throughout the world. And the world seems to be becoming increasingly polarized on the subject. Some can clearly articulate their position on the issues, others feel the issues passionately but cannot give a well-formed response, and still others are on the fence. Many around the world previously untouched by migration are now being forced to take sides. It has never been more important to have leaders who can present viable, ethical, compassionate, and robust responses to their constituents. For the thoughtful, it seems clear that full-blown nationalism is not the answer, and yet the limitations and naivety of a borderless world are also apparent. We wonder what our duties are to those within our borders versus those outside. If there is a discrepancy in our response, we should be able to provide subsequent explanation and justification.
While I do not seek to articulate a definite answer here, there are a few lines of reasoning that I believe are important when attempting to think rightly about the issues. I will try to explain these here.
Let me begin by stating the obvious. The world did not simply begin with the conflicts, disparities, inequalities, and political systems that currently exist; these were created over millennia, and have progressed due to a myriad of factors. The minority world—or, “the Global North”, “the First World”—did not begin as such. It was built through oppressive structures, and at the expense of (much of what would become) the majority world. Oppression and violence are in part why the world has not grown equitably.
This is important to recognize when thinking about current international standards of development, and the way forward in development.
The development of the minority world is, in some senses, an illusion. It is not based on reality. By this I mean that the amount of economic growth and the scale of consumption in the West does not correspond to what the West gave in exchange for these things. Indeed, the trade was (and is) not fair. When you pay $5 for a t-shirt and recognize how many ‘hands’ the t-shirt went through in order to get to you, you quickly recognize that the money cannot stretch very far down the supply chain; assuredly, not everyone will be paid very well. As such, this kind of system is inequitable.
Not only so, but such a world is unsustainable. At least we hope so. At the same time, this kind of world has existed for a long time, in various manifestations, and so we acknowledge that naming something as unsustainable does not actually ensure its disappearance. At present, the “unsustainability” of cheap labour seems to be in strong supply. The day(s) of reckoning seem to be far off, and even unimaginable at present.
Back to migration. When we consider policies that create jobs or encourage cross-border movement that favours the majority world, it is interesting that any backlash from the minority world usually employs the rhetoric of ‘caring for our own’. This is ironic based on the fact that the minority world has played a significant part in initiating and perpetuating the inequity that currently exists in the first place. And so to pretend that the countries in the minority world now enter into relationship with other countries without any history or baggage, and thus without reponsibility, is blind to history and frankly unjust. In reality, we are already implicit and guilty in the suffering that exists in the majority of the majority world. Additionally, for those who are in favour of policy which promotes industries to move from the minority to the majority world, or creating opportunities for labour migration to the minority world, it is interesting to use the language of compassion. This is akin to an abuser who “compassionately” restores justice to his/her victim; it is a matter of justice, not compassion. Compassion of course is not the problem per se, but it is not the primary issue or driver.
Let’s take this a step further. As armchair economists, we might recognize that the ‘race to the bottom’, while awful and far from ideal, should be taken with a long view, recognizing that in time the middle class will grow across the majority world, and more will be able to pull themselves out of economic poverty. But the same people who might affirm this are often unwilling to apply the same distant reasoning process to making ‘sacrifices’ in the West – or said another way, letting wrongs be righted.
Consider this future possibility: As jobs and opportunities seep out of the West, perhaps Western families will face the reality of having only two out of three adult children able to find work, or all three experiencing more irregular employment. As this happens, families will have to become more dependent on one another to survive. This may begin with more loans, adopting an increasingly simple lifestyle, or families needing to move in with one another. Side note: this would be a welcome step from the earth’s perspective, with Westerners occupying less space in the world, using the world’s scarce resources more appropriately, and reducing their already-unsustainable ecological footprint.
Given the oppressive history of the minority to the majority world, does this not seem to be a welcome change? Is there not something just about this extremely mild and almost insignificant amount of equalizing? It seems that in this situation, the majority world will benefit more than the minority world will suffer. And while balanced scales, and wrongs righted, are distant realities, it is important to affirm that this direction is good and right.
To be sure, this is not a prediction of what will happen. Its purpose is merely a thought experiment to envision how a shift in the world’s economy actually makes sense in terms of global, historical (in)justice. In fact, I recognize that my examples in part buy into the zero-sum rhetoric that inappropriately asserts that jobs is specific instances can either be created in the minority world or in the majority world, but not both. While I am no economist, I recognize this claim as contentious at best. But in my examples, I am speaking less in terms of economics, but more in terms of perceptions of potential economic shifts. Moreover, even as an ideological exercise (and not an economic one!), it is overly and potentially unhelpfully simplistic. But it’s the best I can do at this point, folks.
A side note on economic predictions: It seems ridiculous to so confidently paint a picture of what the future international market will look like, especially for those who are not expert economists. Not to completely give into an elitist world (where only the experts can know anything), but it is nevertheless important to recognize that the complex economic systems that underlie the current system, and will underpin any changes to it, are more often than not far outside the populist reach. Or maybe I do in fact subscribe to an elitist vision of economics.
Returning to the question about duty to those outside versus inside our (constructed) geographical borders. I’ve already mentioned that extreme nationalism and internationalism are both poor options. But what alternatives exist? I think that global and national leaders need to think critically about this question, in order to give options to those who are in search of a more robust framework that can bring about a just, compassionate, realistic, and robust approach to global migration.
Some have stated that in a world dominated by growing extreme nationalism and anti-immigrant rhetoric, Canada is one of the last liberal bastions. While there seems to be much good in Canada, it is difficult to not see much of it as extremely naïve. While we have accepted 30,000 refugees from Syria, many European countries have hundreds of thousands of refugees at their door, or already inside. And consider the ‘space to grow’ in Canada versus Europe. So even though the efforts from Canada can be appreciated, we should also recognize that Canada has not had to face the challenges that many other parts of the world have faced. With its geographic isolation from migration origin countries, and the fact that it is less of an apparent target for ideologically-motivated violence, I wonder what could make the global migration issue (what appears to be) an existential threat, as it has become elsewhere in the world? Presumably, the mass acceptance of immigrants and refugees could do this, or the increase in acts of terrorism carried out on Canadian soil. Without such a (perceived) crisis, will those Canadians who hold a naïve approach to migration informed by liberal niceties be able to adapt, retaining a just and compassionate approach to migration? If this kind of response is to happen, Canada will be radically departing from the rightward swing that many other countries—that Canada has followed, and been influenced by in the past—are currently in the midst of.
I close by noting that my reflections on ‘Canada’ are just as reflective as other generalizations about a country as a whole; that is to say, probably not very reflective. This out-of-touch-with-public-opinion was clearly present during the media’s portrayal of the recent US election, where a nationalconstituency that could never have voted in the president did so. Whatever the opinions across Canada are, we need to create more space for discussion on migration issues to occur, and robust frameworks to be provided that will weather the storms of less-than-ideal migration realities and challenges. Thoughtful reflection on migration issues is necessary so that we not only figure out ‘what to believe about migration’, but to think along the ‘right’ lines, thus bringing about a more flexible and thoughtful approach to migration issues for the ever-changing global landscape.