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East/West: Analysis From Washington -- Globalization And Xenophobia

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 16 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Governments which welcome the free flow of capital and goods across their borders increasingly are seeking to defend the advantages globalization gives their citizens by restricting immigration into their countries and rejecting the applications of those who request asylum.

Such policies are frequently popular with those who see immigration as threatening their livelihoods or way of life. But this approach not only entails tragic consequences for the individuals who are involved but calls into question the widespread view that globalization by itself will promote tolerance and international understanding.

Today (Friday) is International Refugee Day, and migration rights groups around the world are seeking to call attention to both things. Perhaps the most dramatic report comes from a Dutch group which points out that over the last seven years, more than 2,000 people have died while trying to reach the countries of the increasingly restrictive European Union.

Many of them have succumb when their boats have sunk in the Adriatic or Mediterranean seas. In the first four months of this year alone, about 120 people lost their lives while attempting to cross the Straights of Gibraltar. And others have committed suicide while being held in detention centers near borders or at major European airports.

Indeed, the group, United for Intercultural Action says, their deaths -- documented at the group's web site at -- point to the emergence of what it calls "Fortress Europe," whose rich residents ever more often seek to prevent others from participating in their prosperity.

In a strongly worded appeal, the group argues that "it is impossible to shut down borders for people when capital and goods are moving freely." And it suggests that Europe's attempt "to keep out migrants and refugees is based on intolerance and xenophobia and needs to be stopped."

Few people are prepared to argue that governments do not have the right to control their borders and regulate who can cross them and for what purposes. Indeed, national control of borders is often viewed today as one of the most fundamental characteristics of state sovereignty.

But efforts to maintain tight control over the movement of people even as there is increasingly free movement of capital and goods and services may have some unintended consequences.

On the one hand, they may appear to provide government sanction for xenophobic attitudes. After all, if governments restrict migration, then many of those who oppose such migration out of ethnic or other prejudices may conclude that their views are thus legitimized.

Some of those people in turn may thus decide to demonstrate their hostility against those they dislike who are already living among them in a variety of ways, support politicians ever more nationalistic politicians, and thereby poison the possibilities for democracy and human rights.

And on the other hand, such anti-migration attitudes and actions simultaneously increases tensions among countries and undercuts the hopes of those who believe that they could improve their lives by moving somewhere else.

By increasing tensions among countries, anti-immigration actions could reduce the flows of capital and goods and thus reduce the benefits of globalization and support for it in some countries.

And by reducing the chances of those who are oppressed or economically disadvantaged in one country from moving to another, such actions can trigger three political developments which could threaten the international system.

First, authoritarian governments which conclude that their populations cannot leave and thus have no choice but to submit are likely to become ever less willing to make the kinds of concessions that they might be driven to in order to reduce population losses.

Second, people who cannot migrate as individuals may decide that the only way they can achieve their ends is by directly challenging the governments they hold responsible for their misfortunes, sometimes peacefully but in other cases by extra systemic violence.

And third, at least some of them may decide to secede as a group from the states that they feel are keeping them down, movements that by their very nature challenge the legitimacy of the existing international system and threaten the peace.

Such risks do not mean that countries could or should refuse to control migration, but they do suggest that the imposition of tight restrictions on the free flow of people may backfire, hurting not only those who seek to enter but also those who may believe that keeping them out is the best way to defend the advantages of globalization.