The entire world seems to be in socio-political turmoil nowadays. Primarily, it is a result of entrenched political and economic power, dysfunctional governments, and corruption. Fortunately for citizens of developed countries with established institutions, their societies continue to function relatively well despite the instability. In the rest of the world however, those factors have combined to create unbearable living conditions that are forcing tens of thousands of people to migrate elsewhere each year.
It used to be that mass migration was driven mainly by armed conflicts and political oppression. Travel in search of economic opportunities has always been a part of human history, but the numbers of people leaving their homelands for that reason were comparatively small, making immigration not as much of an issue in receiving countries as it is today.
Times have changed. The conflict in Syria has dominated the news in the last several years due to the millions of Syrians who have sought refuge in neighboring countries, Europe, and North America. Large numbers of Afghans, Iraqis, Yemenis, Somalis, and citizens of other nations at war have also sought safe havens elsewhere. Unfortunately, their ranks have lately been joined by waves of people from Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe, and other parts of the world who are fleeing from a different kind of catastrophe: economic deprivation.
There are indeed many reasons for the current backlash against immigration in America and Europe. Xenophobia is perhaps the most important. While that has to be condemned at every opportunity, it is equally essential to recognize that there are genuine concerns about the unsustainability of current levels of migration. The about-face in Germany—from welcoming tens of thousands of Syrian refugees with open arms in 2015 to closing the country’s borders on them a year later—clearly illustrates how quickly public sentiment toward immigration can change, even in countries that have previously been tolerant of it.
Given the rising trend toward authoritarianism globally and the likelihood that more and more people will suffer political oppression, and the fact that an increasing frequency of conflicts will lead to ever-rising numbers of people escaping war zones, it is crucially important for the emigration system to be kept alive as a safety valve. That necessitates finding ways to limit the numbers of people who are currently being driven out of their homelands by economic forces.
The corruption and incompetent leadership that underlie economic stagnation in much of the developing world are exacerbated by weak to non-existent institutions. For ordinary citizens of such places, about the only hope is that a strong, honest leader would emerge to set the proper tone and bring about badly needed change. But sadly, in one country after another, there has been a repeated cycle of disappointments. Those who vociferously denounce people in power have often ended up being even more corrupt and incompetent after they are given opportunities to govern. It is no wonder cynicism has reached stratospheric levels in so many parts of the world lately.
There have been isolated flashes of hope. In Liberia, allegations of corruption and nepotism against President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf prompted voters to elect George Weah, a popular soccer star, as the new president in 2017. Having risen to global stardom from very humble beginnings, Weah was seen as “a man of the people” who would prioritize the interests of ordinary Liberians. Unfortunately, that optimism quickly faded, with Weah currently facing his own corruption allegations. There has been a similar story in Tanzania, where euphoric reactions to President John Magufuli’s election and initial popular actions in office soon vanished after his authoritarian tendencies surfaced.
These repeated ballot-box failures have convinced the majority of people that their best option is to vote with their feet—emigrate. The tragedy is that in their attempts to seek better lives, many migrants rather endure even more horrific conditions along the way, or at their destinations.
After families join caravans to flee from the extreme violence in Central America’s Northern Triangle to Mexico and the U.S., children are separated from their parents at the U.S. border, sometimes for months, a traumatic experience that most experts say will cause permanent psychological damage to both children and parents. Each year, thousands of African migrants have equally harrowing encounters along their journeys to Europe.
African politicians, after looting their nations’ coffers, have often found it easy to keep those assets in European banks, with few questions asked. That allowed corruption to thrive. Thankfully, because they need to stem the flow of migrants to their borders, U.S., European, and other rich-country governments have finally realized that they have as much at stake in the fight against corruption as the people who suffer from it directly do, and are now doing what they can to help. In recent years, several banks have paid huge fines to regulators for enabling the flows of illicit money.
More than anything, what the world badly needs now are honest leaders who can govern competently in places where despair has taken hold. It was widespread frustration with corruption that led Ukrainians to give a landslide victory in the recent presidential elections to Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian with no political experience. He reportedly won over 73 percent of the vote, versus just over 24 percent for the incumbent, Petro Poroshenko.
Zelensky’s newly formed party subsequently won the first single-party majority in modern Ukrainian history, a clear sign that Ukrainians had faith in his promises to clean up national politics. His request that his country’s administrators hang pictures of their children, not his, in their offices and look at them each time they make a decision is truly remarkable for a president in a part of the world where personal enrichment has often been the primary objective of electoral politics. He reportedly wants to make history as the person who completely transformed Ukraine as a country.
In El Salvador, 37-year-old political outsider Nayib Bukele was elected president this year after pledging to tackle the corruption and gang violence that have driven large numbers of his compatriots out of the country. Similarly, Zuzana Caputova, a relatively inexperienced politician, recently won the presidency in Slovakia in an election dominated by the issue of corruption.
Judging by the record of establishment politicians in much of the developing world over the last several decades, it seems as though the political systems there will never be able to deliver what those societies need. Such disillusionment will only add fuel to the current migration crisis, which, as global citizens, we are all impacted by in one way or another. That is why we must hope and pray for the likes of Caputova, Bukele, and Zelensky to succeed as presidents.