Even as migration has imposed significant fiscal and social costs on Europe, it has made little impact on the number of actual refugees worldwide. Nor would one expect it to: there are simply too many refugees around the globe for long-distance resettlement to be a panacea. Most refugees either remain within their country of origin as “internally displaced persons” or else settle in the nearest place of safety. From a purely technological and organizational point of view, the global community is becoming quite good at aiding refugees: Syrian refugee camps in Jordan and Turkey, for example, are increasingly equipped with running water, sewage disposal, schools, and electricity.
Much harder is creating economic opportunity within these overnight cities, and preventing extremism from taking hold. Harder still: prompt resolution of the wars that displace people in the first place. These difficulties are not eased by the continued insistence that advanced countries accept the illegal migration of the most mobile, most assertive, and generally least vulnerable people from the poorer parts of the world.
Europe now can follow one of two examples: a cautionary one offered by the United States, or a more hopeful model set forth by Australia.
Beginning in 2012, the United States faced a surge in illegal entries by unaccompanied minors from Mexico and Central America. The number of such migrants apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border jumped 60 percent from 2012 to 2013, and 75 percent from 2013 to 2014. Throughout the crisis, many news reports insisted that they were refugees fleeing lethal chaos in their home countries. But Central America had not become appreciably more chaotic—in fact, the murder rate in Honduras, the largest sending country last year, dropped by some 20 percent from 2012 to 2014. Most of the unaccompanied minors were males, many of them likely responding to a perceived opportunity: a series of changes in U.S. policy since 2008 seemed to promise that young migrants would not be sent home. The surge in attempted border crossings began to subside only recently, after the U.S. persuaded the Mexican government to help apprehend migrants as they passed through that country.
Contrast this with the recent experience of Australia. After the Labor government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced a newly permissive policy toward asylum-seekers in 2008, their numbers, unsurprisingly, soared. As holding facilities filled, Labor leaders moved to reintroduce stricter controls, but public opinion had already turned against them: the party lost the 2013 federal election to Tony Abbott, a conservative who had, among other campaign promises, vowed to crack down on asylum-seekers arriving by boat. Under Abbott’s policy, no unapproved boats would be allowed to land. Period. Boats apprehended at sea would be turned back to their point of origin or towed to uncongenial places like Papua New Guinea for processing of passengers. The government used social media to communicate the new policy throughout Southeast Asia. A YouTube video released in many of the region’s languages warned: “If you travel by boat without a visa, you will not make Australia home.” Since then, illegal boat migration has virtually disappeared.