Does global migration miss the Berlin Wall?

The most powerful imagery from the Cold War was the Berlin Wall, designed to keep people in as opposed to keeping them out. “A simple way to take measure of a country is to look at how many want in and how many want out”, once said Tony Blair.

Perhaps the Wall was used simply as an ideological and political crutch by politicians in a different era. Maybe the generations to follow were meant to take the Wall as a figurative reminder of ‘something bad’, i.e. Communism, as opposed to an actual concrete structure locking people in. It is hard not to think of this contrast as one scrolls through Twitter in the age of Brexit and Trump.

The latest example. Today, the entire government of the United Kingdom is moving in lockstep towards peak anti-migrant fervour. The Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, is launching a ‘crackdown targeting students, taxi drivers and EU criminals‘ while simultaneously investigating how to make businesses publish how many international staff they hire. Her Prime Minister, Theresa May, will “attack politicians who sneer at ‘patriotic’ working class voters concerned about migration“. The only thing lacking at this point is a land border for France to pay for.

The West derived real cultural power during the Cold War for not requiring a wall, for welcoming political dissidents or simply those wishing to leave. The first big wave of migrants to Australia were not all refugees as is commonly remembered but amongst them were people fleeing totalitarian regimes. Soviet citizens able to escape became heroes in the United States, fated by the government and communities they became a part of.

In 1945 there were only 17 democracies in the world, with a combined population of 262 million. Yet by 1990, democracy had grown to 52 countries with a combined 2.3 billion people:

world-pop-by-political-regime(Source: the wonderful OurWorldInData website)

During the Cold War, the United States was not opposed to hypocrisy. However walls and locking people in countries were frowned upon. During this time, a social norm for governments of a newly functioning democracy was the inclusion of freedom to emigrate. Indeed today when you look at a list of countries where emigration controls still exist – for example banning women from gaining passports – it appears emigration is a key tenet for a number of authoritarian regimes: Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen, amongst others (Table 6, Page 16).

It is worth considering what role the symbol of an open country in perpetual conflict against a closed country had underpinning norms around migration from the end of World War Two until around the turn of the century. What have countries like the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia lost in terms of their ability to win an argument, not against a naturally defined foe, but against their own citizens clamouring to pull up an illusory drawbridge? Australia has transformed our migration framework over this same period yet at various times it feels like we are in a tinder box just waiting to catch fire. What big, moral authority can we appeal to today? In terms of a direct appeal to what is the right path to take, the economic case doesn’t seem to have the same vigour and weight as pointing to those nasty Communists and doing the opposite.

I’m thankful people are trying. Chris Bowen and Scott Morrison have both been out pumping the case for openness in recent weeks. However Chris Bowen has a relatively easy job given he is in Opposition and Mr Morrison, forgive me for saying, seems rather hollow given his performance to date with foreign ownership laws and his legacy in the Immigration portfolio. Regardless, they both seem in need of something bigger to carry along their shared message, a vehicle to pick people up and bring them along for the ride instead of shouting into a wind of nationalistic pessimism. Nothing will bring back the Cold War and national security is not just a poor substitute but a detrimental one when it comes to migration.

To me, these are powerful arguments for not viewing the current migration debate through a left-right lens but considering the question it terms of an open or closed approach to engaging with what falls outside of sovereign borders. The United States had left and right governments throughout the Cold War but they were largely open. This is also not a question about big or small government. Indeed, a closed country requires a large, heavy handed government, something which might slowly dawn on the May Government now running the United Kingdom. Memo Vote Compass: throw away your left-right scale for questions of migration because it doesn’t mean anything.

It is a fair and open question to ask whether global norms around migration are fundamentally changing. While emigration barriers are not strong and only apply in small pockets across the world, emigration requires immigration as well. And immigration is being challenged across the developed world unlike anytime since the first regulatory walls went up in earnest in the early 20th century.

I don’t expect massive social norms for governments to emerge overnight and lead the way with regard to questions of migration policy and migration flows. But it is sort of confounding nothing even appears on the horizon. Thankfully there are still optimists around. Here is what Khalid Koser – who you should watch on Q&A next week – has to say about how Australia is primed to lead the way on these issues:

But in fact it is in Australia’s national interest to take a lead. First, it is important to pre-empt future shocks that may result in an increase in asylum applications. There is no guarantee that Operation Sovereign Borders will be sustainable – it may be overwhelmed by large numbers of boats or undercut by legal challenges and financial constraints. In the next decade, Australia should also expect growing pressures from people seeking to escape the effects of environmental change.

Second, in comparison to most other industrialised states, especially in Europe, Australia has a historic opportunity to be proactive. As Australia learned a few years ago, there is no political appetite or policy bandwidth to focus on long-term reform in the throes of a short-term asylum crisis. This is exactly why the world needs Australia to conceptualise, propose and support reform now. Promoting reform of the international protection regime may also be one way for Australia to allay some of the international criticism it has attracted because of its asylum policy.

Third, advocating to improve the performance of the international protection regime is a logical progression of Australia’s historic commitment towards it. It was Australia’s signature in 1954 that brought the 1951 Refugee Convention into force. One of the underlying principles is shared responsibility. Proximity should define responsibility, and Australia has a responsibility to help improve the response to the global refugee crisis, even if it is not directly affected for now.

Endnote: The answer in the title is no because the Cold War was not good. But it was the best I could manage in a new era of attempting to lure people to read this blog.

Endnote II: Tom Westland writes better than I do about walls in this must-read post about immigration and economics.

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