Loss of Control: What Moderates Get Wrong About Migration

If mainstream politicians are unable to fix a broken system, they will cede the issue to the far right.

Red Cross workers provide first aid to migrants in Hungary, September 4, 2015
Red Cross workers provide first aid to migrants in Hungary, September 4, 2015 (IFRC/Stephen Ryan)

Immigration into Europe and the United States is down, yet the far right continues to monopolize the debate.

The EU faced a one-time surge in asylum applications from Afghans, Iraqis and Syrians in 2015-16 as well as four years of high numbers of mostly African migrants (PDF) trying to reach Italy by boat. The numbers are down, yet the far-right League is the most popular party in Italy.

In the United States, asylum applications from Central American countries plagued by violence are up, but Mexican immigration is down. Donald Trump nevertheless won the 2016 election on a virulently anti-immigrant platform.

Fake news and media echo chambers are part of the problem. It is difficult to expose voters to the facts when they can find “alternative facts” just a click away. But this does not fully explain the appeal of the populist message. The bigger problem is that moderates do not have a coherent migration policy to fix systems that are obviously broken. As a result, they do not have a strong story to tell.

Rights at risk

Mainstream policies have been either toothless (expanding Europe’s Frontex border agency), besides the point (calls for offshore processing centers), too radical (“abolish ICE”) or unconvincing copies of the far right’s. This leaves voters with the impression that only the populist right is willing and able to solve the problem.

By ceding the issue to the far right, the center has put the right to asylum — one of the most important achievements of the postwar international order — at risk.

This is not collateral damage. Undermining this fundamental right has been a goal of right-wing populism for years. Once this brick is knocked out of the wall of rights that protect individuals, the rest will be easier to tear down.

Two countries, Hungary and the United States, are cautionary tales of what will happen if moderates do not take control of the issue.

The far-right vanguard: Hungary

Hungary’s example shows how an asylum system can be gradually dismantled in just a few years.

In 2015, at the height of Europe’s Aegean migration crisis, when thousands of mostly Middle Eastern asylum seekers crossed Hungary every day en route to Germany, Viktor Orbán’s government built a barbed-wire fence along the country’s border with Serbia. It made crossing the border illegally a crime, declared Serbia a safe country and fast-tracked asylum procedures at the border.

This did not do the trick: migrants simply chose to cross different borders — until Orbán’s government erected obstacles along the entirety of Hungary’s southern border so migrants had to cross through neighboring Croatia or Slovenia to reach Germany.

Migration ebbed considerably (PDF) after the EU and Turkey reached a deal in March 2016 to control the flow of people, but this did not stop Orbán. He launched a vicious anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim propaganda campaign in a media his party increasingly controlled. His government declared a “migration emergency”. Police were ordered to take third-country nationals arrested within an eight-kilometer zone of the international border, and later anywhere in the country, back to the southern side of Hungary’s border fence. Vigilante groups pushed asylum seekers back, but police brutality was also rife.

Foreigners who are pushed back do not have the right to lodge an asylum application or appeal the measure. In fact, unless a foreign national is in Hungary’s territory with a valid travel document, they can only present an asylum claim in two so-called transit zones on the border. This runs against the European Union’s asylum legislation and, one can argue, against the non-refoulement clause of the 1951 Refugee Convention. But Orbán feared no interference from Hungary’s courts and infringement proceedings — the EU mechanism for compelling member states to suspend problematic legislation — are a lengthy process.

Hungary then started restricting the number of asylum seekers who are admitted into the zones. First thirty a day, then fifteen, then ten, then five. As of 2018, only one asylum seeker is allowed into each transit zone a day. This is the furthest Hungarian authorities can go without formally ending the right to asylum.

Those who are admitted into the transit zones are detained in conditions of extreme deprivation for the entire duration of their asylum procedure, regardless of whether they count as vulnerable applicants or not.

Moreover, they have barely any chance to obtain asylum. Since July, the asylum authority has been instructed to regard applications by people arriving from a safe transit country, like Serbia, legally inadmissible. Since asylum claims can only be lodged on the Hungarian-Serbian border, this has proven prohibitive. Between the beginning of July and late November, only four people out of 165 were granted asylum, among them a former Macedonian prime minister and Orbán ally convicted for corruption.

Orbán’s American disciples

American readers have undoubtedly had moments of déjà vu reading the above. In October, the White House issued a communication, which claimed there was a “surge” in illegal immigration and used expressions such as “historic” and “record-shattering” to suggest that this amounted to a “dangerous border crisis”. It claimed the crisis had been caused by “outrageous loopholes”, for which it blamed the Democrats.

The truth is that irregular arrivals are lower than they have been in any year since the early 1970s (PDF).

In spite of this, a year ago, the administration started denying parole to asylum applicants who pass a “credible fear” interview, which is used to determine if an asylum seeker’s claim should be examined in substance. Parallel to this, there was a sharp increase in the number of migrants detained, mostly in private prisons where conditions include inhumane treatment and deprivation of food — just like in Hungary’s transit zones.

The first so-called migrant caravan, in the spring of 2018, led to a “zero tolerance” policy by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Illegal entry, formerly a misdemeanor, was reclassified as a crime. Asylum seekers who had formerly been held in facilities on the American side of the border were now stopped before they could enter the country. Children were separated from their parents until that part of the policy was struck down by a judge.

In June, Sessions reversed an immigration appeals-court ruling which had expanded the grounds for asylum to include domestic and gang violence. The purpose is similar to that of the Hungarian asylum authority as it ordered to declare claims by people arriving from Serbia inadmissible.

Just as in Hungary, border guards have engaged in violent pushbacks, going so far as to tear-gas asylum seekers near the border town of San Ysidro. The Guardian reported in October that at the border crossing point near the Gateway International Bridge over the Rio Grande, only two or three applicants were allowed into the United States per day.

In November, Trump went full Orbán: he announced that only people entering through recognized ports of entry would be eligible for asylum.

Trump’s decision was clearly illegal under American law and, unlike in Hungary, courts reacted promptly. A federal judge in San Francisco blocked the policy.

But this does not mean Trump won’t try again. With only the most obvious excesses struck down, the rest of his policies go ahead — and with them the demolition of a system guaranteeing a fundamental right.

Taking back control

It is not enough for those who care about asylum to rely on the courts to turn the tide. Moderates on all sides need to step up their game.

Nobody in Europe has gone further than Orbán in curtailing asylum rights, but his example has inspired politicians across Europe, including in Austria, Poland and most recently Italy, where Matteo Salvini, the interior minister and leader of the far-right League, is implementing policies similar to Hungary’s. Far-right parties want to make migration a central issue in next year’s European election campaign.

Christian democrats, social democrats and liberals cannot simply wish the issue away.

First, they should counter the narrative that there is an invasion of migrants. The numbers tell a different story.

Second, they should insist that irregular migration is not inevitable: it can and must be controlled. Instead of focusing on symbols like a border wall and ICE, moderates must offer solutions to the growing backlog of asylum claims.

Third, instead of exploiting people’s fears, moderates should give their countries agency. American and European authorities and courts decide who gets asylum, based on strict but fair criteria which should be regularly and transparently assessed. The Dutch asylum system has shown that quick and effective asylum procedures can be humane and legally sound — a way to fix slow procedures and terrible detention conditions in Greece, Italy and the United States.

This can only work if it includes take-back agreements with third countries in exchange for legal access, modeled on the agreement America made with Cuba in the 1990s. In order for European countries to return failed asylum seekers to West Africa, they should offer more (short-term) working visas to the countries of the region. In order for the United States to sign a “safe third country agreement” with Mexico, it should invest in building a robust asylum system in Mexico besides speeding up its own procedures. The EU-Turkey agreement of 2016, which promptly reduced deathly irregular sea crossings while improving the lives of hundreds of thousands of refugees in Turkey, can serve as a template.

Only once the situation at the border is visibly under control will moderates be in a position to argue for an increase in the controlled, orderly resettlement of refugees.

Fourth, moderates need to point out the failures of their opponents. In the United States, they should point out that Trump has broken with the successful policy of his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, who deprioritized the deportation of law-abiding illegal immigrants, in favor of an approach that disrupts communities, spreads fear — and occasionally swoops up American citizens in zealous ICE raids.

Crafting a coherent story and volunteering solutions instead of being on the defensive could bring political gains in the short term. But moderates should keep in mind that any successful policy requires long-term commitment. This, more than any Facebook wizardry or Russian sorcery, is what has made their opponents seem so successful. Designing and implementing a humane and effective migration policy is more difficult than testing out new slogans. But the alternative is a dystopian future where migrants are treated increasingly badly to deter others from coming and fundamental rights are eroded.