In recent weeks and months, the press has paid increasing attention to the problem of migrants and refugees fleeing to Europe in an effort to escape dire conditions in the Africa and the Middle East. Among the most stirring images released recently was that of a three year old Syrian boy named Aylan Kurdi, who drowned with his mother and brother while heading to Greece to escape the violence and insurgency that has been raging there 2011. By some estimates, as many as 300,000 migrants and refugees have poured into Southern Europe this year, a sign of the heightened instability and economic difficulties faced by war torn and lesser developed countries along the Mediterranean Sea.
The massive relocation of people is not a new phenomenon, of course. During and after World War II, hundreds of thousands of people fled the desperate physical and economic conditions resulting from war. Thanks in part to a roughly $13 billion aid package from the United States, known as the Marshall Plan, Europe’s political and economic conditions stabilized. Decades later, conditions improved to the point that Europe has now become a major destination for migrants and refugees. Indeed, as in the United States, the pull of economic opportunity is so strong that many migrants will go to great extremes to find a better life, even immigrating without authorization. For this reason, the United States and Europe have made substantial efforts to stem the tide of unauthorized migration, resulting in the massive buildup of immigration enforcement and physical barriers that have effectively built what some scholars have described as a “wall around the West.”
The irony of today’s situation is that the current era has been widely heralded as the “Age of Globalization,” in which capital, goods, and information flow freely across international boundaries creating a “borderless world.” Yet, in reality, borders between developed and lesser-developed countries have hardened, not softened with the course of globalization (as illustrated by the case of the U.S.-Mexico border). Thus, the plight of Europe’s incoming migrants and refugee populations raises many practical and ethical questions about today’s global economy:
- Instead of creating more opportunities for everyone, has globalization simply created more opportunities for some and not others (or perhaps even at the expense of others)?
- What right do migrants and refugees have to seek better opportunities for themselves? What right do the United States and European countries have to deny their quest for better opportunities?
- What responsibility, if any, does a person have to others when seeking their own self preservation? What responsibilities, if any, do we have to our neighbors when they are in need?
- What can and should be done, if anything, to address the plight of people fleeing dire poverty or the destruction and misery of war zones? What can and should be done, if anything, to protect national boundaries from encroachment by outsiders in need?
- In the European context, in particular, how should this relatively new community of nations plan on sharing the burden of providing assistance to the current wave of migrants and refugees. Are the current quotas assigned to different countries reasonable or even feasible?
- What is the type of treatment that should be given to (economic) migrants and (political) refugees? Should they be treated the same? Should either be forced to live in camps, separated from their families? Should either be granted automatic legal status to reside in a country until they are able to return home?
Those interested in this topic may be interested to take a look at a monograph I co-edited a few years ago with my colleague José María Román, entitled 2 Borders/2Fronteras. The monograph grew out of a year long study that included site visits on both sides of the Atlantic, and includes a series of essays comparing the situation of the U.S.-Mexican land border to that of the tri-border area of Spain-Gibraltar-Morocco.