Treating Migration as a Crisis Is a Missed Opportunity

Refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine wait at the Medyka pedestrian border crossing in eastern Poland on Feb. 27. WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP via Getty Images
Refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine wait at the Medyka pedestrian border crossing in eastern Poland on Feb. 27. WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP via Getty Images

As she watched reports out of Ukraine early in Russia’s invasion, graduate student Macire Aribot was struck by two unmistakable elements in the near-blanket television news coverage in the United States. Every now and then, one network or another would feature a brief report about the plight of African students trying to flee the mounting bombardment of Ukrainian cities, only to be denied seats on the packed buses and trains that were evacuating people or to be turned away at the country’s western borders. These news reports were sporadic and felt incidental, rarely pausing to inquire about how the treatment of Africans in this part of Europe related to hostility toward migrants from Africa in other parts of the world.

The other feature common to so much of the network and newspaper coverage was how often during those early weeks of the war news reports out of Ukraine were marred by a kind of casual and thoughtless Western racism. This came across clearly to her in the way reporters and commentators lamented the plight of “civilized” people with blond hair and blue eyes, as if such features were attributes of civilization or were of any other fundamental relevance to the ongoing tragedy. They described Russia’s war tactics and their brutal toll on civilians as something unimaginable in Europe—patently ignoring Europe’s history for the last century and a half.

Moved by the callous response of European governments, border agents, and even humanitarian agencies to African students’ plight evident in this coverage, Aribot mobilized the nonprofit organization she had founded in the United States in 2020, whose original focus was on issues of global development, to pivot toward this emergency. In short order, relying on family networks from the Atlanta area where Aribot grew up as well as social media, her organization, NoirUnited International, raised more than $100,000 and was able to assist scores of stranded Africans in leaving Ukraine and finding temporary lodging—and, in some cases, university transfers to other European countries and beyond.

“There were millions of dollars going toward humanitarian relief in Ukraine, but Black and Brown people were not getting access to almost any of it”, the first-year graduate student at Columbia University, who traveled to five European countries during spring break to personally deliver assistance to some of the stranded African students her organization helped, told Foreign Policy. “Some of [them] had walked as long as 12 hours a day to reach a border, and many of them said they were segregated, forced to sit on the ground for two or three days watching while Ukrainians or other people who were white pass through with ease”.

However admirable, ad hoc personal initiatives like this are wildly undermatched to the scale of what already looms as one of the biggest challenges of this century—yet a nearly silent one so far: ensuring much greater equity in the movement of millions of people who are commonly dismissed as refugees around the world.

A number of powerful dynamics already in the works all but guarantee this will be a century of human movement on a scale unmatched in any prior era. Climate change, which was overwhelmingly generated in rich northern countries, will render large swaths of the Earth unable to sustain their present populations. Many of the areas that are most vulnerable to climate change are concentrated in already underdeveloped regions of the global south, with parts of Africa likely to be hit particularly hard.

The looming trauma of climate change is arriving on top of a much older yet accelerating crisis: the increasing concentration of human wealth and economic opportunity in a few select regions. These include the United States and Western Europe in the North Atlantic; Northeast Asia, including Japan, South Korea, and coastal China; and pockets here and there in South and Southeast Asia. Most of the rest of world—indeed, the regions where a growing majority of the world’s people live—is generally locked out of the prospect of rapid, prolonged, and transformative economic growth.

When they think of this reality at all, many people in the world’s rich countries dismiss this yawning wealth gap as almost entirely the fault of the poor, arguing that if only they had followed the policy prescriptions of, say, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) over the years, they would be thriving now.

But that is self-serving nonsense. Throughout the modern era, as the global economy has taken shape, it has always been a top-down affair. Early in this era, that involved siphoning millions of people from Africa who were enslaved and forced to produce agricultural commodities that transformed Europe, placing it on an ascendant economic path that sharply diverged from other continents. A bit later, the West itself was born of this kind of exploitation, as enslaved labor from Africa helped make continental North America the economic powerhouse and partner of Western Europe that it became.

Later, as European powers colonized almost the entire world, they used the vast stretches of the world under their control as sources of cheap commodities and low-priced labor. Indians, Chinese, and people from other parts of the world were shipped from one continent to another in vast, organized colonial migrations to power transformative Western development projects (think of Chinese or Indians building railroads in the United States and East Africa, respectively) or to work on plantations or factories. Meanwhile, well into the 20th century, millions of Africans—unbeknownst to most in the West—were subjugated via forced labor schemes on their own continent to produce cotton, rubber, and food oils.

Since colonial rule ended almost everywhere in the world in the three-decade period after the 1947 independence of India and Pakistan, Western economies have maintained high barriers to entry of many of their primary products while insisting that poor countries keep their economies open to Western goods and unrestricted capital flows.

As for major Western-led international financial institutions, such as the World Bank and IMF—putting aside the insufficient size of their funding—the policy advice of the first has zigged and zagged across the decades, imposing strategies on the poor that seem to contradict themselves from one era to the next, with no accountability for its failures.

A strategy the IMF has long favored since the 1980s, meanwhile, responds to poor countries’ financial crises in much the same way that Western medicine treated disease in previous centuries by prescribing leeches and poisons. The standard reform prescription imposed on the ailing economies of poor countries has been to slash government expenditures across the board, including for necessities such as education and public health.

This brutal regimen set human development in low-income regions of the world back by decades and left Africa, with its collection of very young and fragile states, hit particularly hard.

The last of the three great changes that now loom involves African demographics. There are many ways to assess this challenge, but there is no denying that the transformation of Africa’s population landscape stands to become one of the defining events of our era. Yet few people, in Africa or outside of the continent, are focusing any great energy on this.

The United Nations Population Division projects that Africa will increase from its present 1.2 or so billion people to as many as nearly 5 billion people by 2100. That may seem a long way off, but for change on this scale, it is a blink in time. My view is that much of Africa’s growing demographic velocity can be understood as a response to the extraordinary and prolonged demographic hit that the continent took from four centuries of the Atlantic slave trade.

The most commonly employed number used to measure this trade suggests that the continent lost 12.5 million people to slavery in the Americas, but this is seriously deceiving, only counting those who landed alive on the shores of the New World. When one takes into account what demographers and epidemiologists call excess deaths, meaning the number of people who perished as a direct or indirect result of the violence and disorder in Africa brought about by the slave trade, it is likely that twice this number of people, if not more, perished due to slavery.

Almost all of the Africans shipped off into slavery, moreover, were of prime reproductive age. This catastrophe must be understood against the size of the continent’s population in the peak era of trans-Atlantic slavery in the 18th century, when Africa contained roughly 100 million people.

Africa’s present demographic course can be seen as a looming disaster, or worse, a menace, as some in the West will undoubtedly begin to cast it, once they finally awaken to the numbers. I view it as an opportunity, albeit a fragile and fleeting one.

Many African countries are entering a sweet spot that population specialists call a “demographic dividend”. This means that their populations skew heavily toward youth, and youth means people eager for education and work. Either now or very soon, Europe, the United States, Northeast Asia, and other parts of the rich world, such as Australia and New Zealand, will need lots of new working-age people to power their economies, fund entitlement spending, take care of older adults, and drive innovation.

There is only one continent that stands any prospect of furnishing those youth in their required numbers, and that is Africa. Yet, a fundamental obstacle stands in the way.

I am not talking about the kinds of obnoxious and ultimately futile barriers that rich Western countries are imposing on immigrants from poorer, browner parts of the world, as exemplified by Britain’s recent announcement that it would use Rwanda, already one of the world’s most densely populated societies, to absorb undesirable refugees. The United States, France, Israel, and other rich countries have schemes of their own that are just as offensive and will ultimately prove equally ineffective.

These involve virtually extending their borders and legal regimes well beyond the confines of their own territories to limit and control the ability of brown- and black-skinned people to seek refuge or migrate. As they do so, rich countries have been setting up new immigration frontiers in places like Guatemala, Niger, Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa, Nauru and Christmas Island in the Pacific, and many other countries.

The real problem at work here is not one of legal codes and immigration regimes, as offensive in substance and spirit as they often are; rather, it is something deeper and more personal that has a name many will find unpleasant but that needs to be faced squarely: racism. Deep down, the rich of the world don’t want people of color in their midst in general because they think in terms of hierarchized identity, with Brown being undesirable and Black unbearable. They think and often speak in all-too neat and artificial civilizational terms, imagining that newcomers of a skin color different from theirs will sully their societies and destroy what they believe makes them special.

Some rich societies do accept—though “welcome” is not the right word—dark-skinned people from less developed countries whose labor they recognize is necessary to carry out the most menial, underpaid, or unpleasant work. But they respond by circumscribing labor and immigration rights or undergo all but hysterical backlashes when the populations of these outsiders are deemed too visible.

The amount of self-delusion bound up in common, even if sometimes unvoiced, fears like these is enormous. The history of the world is one of ceaseless human movement, leaving no society even remotely pure, except in national mythologies, and building many of the richest and most successful of these societies on the very basis of what the French call brassage, or the melding of people from many horizons.

As with climate change, the biggest dilemmas humanity faces today are shared ones, and demographics and migration flows are high on the list. But sensible management of this mounting crisis is impeded by a simple and commonplace adage. Where the less developed parts of the world and their peoples are concerned, the rich appear willing to cut off their noses to spite their faces.

Now is the time for rich societies to engage the poor, the Black, and the Brown in ways that do dramatically more to help revitalize their economies and create education and opportunity on far vaster scales than exist at present. Among other benefits, this will help provide rich societies with more economically and socially beneficial migrants, which—like it or not—they will soon need.

The outcome to be most feared, though, is where the nose gets lopped off. The rich continue to believe that the fate and fortunes of people in the underdeveloped world have little to do with them, and then, when Africa’s population swells beyond most people’s present-day imagination in the decades ahead, people from that continent and other desperate parts of the world will begin arriving—destitute, undereducated, and often ill—in dramatic numbers anyway.

Howard W. French is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a longtime foreign correspondent. His latest book is Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War.

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