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World: Analysis From Washington -- Backlash At The Borders

Washington, 14 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakhstan's decision to require transit visas for the citizens of post-Soviet countries who are passing through its territory is the latest example of efforts by states to combat two unwelcome consequences of economic globalization: uncontrolled immigration and the internationalization of criminal activity.

On Wednesday, the Foreign Ministry of Kazakhstan announced that as of February 1, citizens of other Commonwealth of Independent State countries will have to obtain transit visas if they want to travel through that Central Asian country. The ministry said that it had decided to do so to curb illegal and, at least at present, uncontrolled migration there.

Kazakhstan is hardly the first CIS country to take this step. Neighboring Uzbekistan adopted a similar procedure on 1 January. And the Russian Federation announced earlier this year that it would recognize only its own visas as of January 15. Like Kazakhstan, Tashkent and Moscow each said that it had been forced to do this to combat illicit migration.

On the one hand, this development at least in part reflects a rising level of distrust among the former Soviet republics, a distrust fueled in part by the inability of many of them to regulate the flow of people across their territories and to prevent the spread of organized crime across what are now international borders.

But on the other hand, such efforts are taking place in ever more countries around the world as national governments struggle to cope with what they see as a veritable flood of foreigners into their own countries, a flood that sometimes brings with it criminal activities and increased burdens on the public sector of those states into which it comes.

Earlier this month, for example, the Czech Republic introduced rules which require tourists from selected countries to prove as a condition of entry that they carry medical insurance and have sufficient funds for the length of their proposed stay and that they fill in a detailed immigration card.

Over the last year, the United States and the countries of the European Union also have stepped up their vigilance at the borders, often at the insistence of their own citizens who see illegal migration as a threat to their standard of living, way of life, and even law and order.

And on Thursday, China said that countries around the world should beware of illegal immigrants from its territory who seek to claim asylum or refugee status in order to avoid being returned to their homeland.

One of the countries most concerned about the flow of illegal migrants from China is Canada. Its foreign ministry announced this week that he will travel to Beijing in the spring to work with the Chinese authorities to help staunch the flow of such people across the Pacific into Canada -- even though Ottawa continues to seek increased legal immigration.

Such actions are clearly necessary given the ever growing size of such illegal population movements in recent years, the near certainty that both will increase as income differentials among countries continue to rise, and the criminal activities associated with these flows.

But in addition to the benefits such controls may bring to those states which impose them, they also entail three very real risks.

First, some efforts to control illegal immigration can further exacerbate negative attitudes toward legal migrants as well and make it far more difficult for them to be integrated into the broader society.

Second, such border controls can heighten tensions among countries, particularly if it appears that the authorities are targeting members of particular ethnic groups. Thus, Bulgarian and Ukrainian officials have been very upset by the Czech procedures because Prague has announced that the new procedures apply to their nationals but not to all.

And third, past experience suggests that expanded border controls are likely to provoke those who want to cross borders illegally or to help others do so to take steps to evade these controls. Indeed, the major reason for the upcoming talks between China and Canada is that efforts to smuggle illegal Chinese immigrants into Canada have led to ever more deaths.

As the world grows smaller, more and more people are likely going to be on the move across international borders. Most of them will be engaged in completely legal pursuits, and their movement will benefit everyone. But those who aren't may prompt a backlash at the borders, thus triggering nationalism in some places and limiting the benefits of globalization in others.