The Failure of Free Migration

LONDON – The horrendous attack by a French-Tunisian man on a crowd in Nice celebrating Bastille Day, which killed 84 and injured hundreds more, will give National Front leader Marine Le Pen a massive boost in next spring’s presidential election. It doesn’t matter whether the murderer, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, had any links to radical Islamism. Throughout the Western world, a toxic mix of physical, economic, and cultural insecurity has been fueling anti-immigration sentiment and politics precisely at the moment when the disintegration of post-colonial states across the Islamic crescent is producing a refugee problem on a scale not seen since World War II.

In the last 30 years or so, a key benchmark for liberal-democratic societies has been their openness to newcomers. Only bigots could not see that immigration benefits both hosts and migrants; so the task of political leadership was to keep such views out of the dominant discourse, and to facilitate integration or assimilation. Unfortunately, most Western elites failed to appreciate the conditions of success.

Although the movement of peoples has been a constant feature of human history, it has been relatively bloodless only when it was into scantily settled or developing territories. A classic case was the nineteenth-century emigrations from Europe to the New World. Between 1840 and 1914, 55 million people left Europe for the Americas – much larger, relative to population, than migration since WWII. Nearly all the movers were economic migrants, pushed out of their countries by famine and agricultural depression and pulled to the New World by the promise of free land and a better life.

As the world industrialized and filled up with people, the flow of people from developed to developing areas reversed. Poverty and starvation still pushed migrants off the land in poor countries; now, however, the pull factor was not free land, but better jobs in developed countries.