Jul 16, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Record migration sparks backlash in wealthy nations

Recognized asylum applications, by select receiving country
Data: UNICEF; Chart: Tory Lysik/Axios Visuals

Waves of migrants taking dangerous, unauthorized passages to Europe and the U.S. are fueling a new rush of anti-immigrant policies and deepening political divisions in several wealthy countries.

The big picture: New immigration restrictions, and a sharp increase in anti-immigrant rhetoric from conservative politicians, come as wars, climate-driven disasters and economic woes have led record numbers of refugees and asylum seekers to embark on perilous journeys from their home countries.

  • Some 2.9 million new asylum applications were submitted last year — more than any year since at least 2000, according to the UN.
  • 40% of the new applications were made by people fleeing Latin America and the Caribbean, especially Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.
  • There’s also been a dramatic surge in Europe, driven by migrants from Syria, northern Africa, Iraq, Turkey and elsewhere.

Driving the news: In the U.S., almost every 2024 Republican presidential candidate has embraced a tough stance on border security and migrants, reflecting polls that suggest most Americans want less immigration.

  • Proposed policies include finishing former President Trump's border wall, sending military troops into Mexico to target cartels, and restricting or ending birthright citizenship for children of undocumented immigrants.
  • Large numbers of illegal crossings at the southwest border led President Biden to embrace strict immigration policies. He's drawn criticism from Republicans who want tougher restrictions, and from fellow Democrats who say he's gone too far in limiting asylum.

In Europe, far-right politicians in Poland, Italy, Hungary, Spain and beyond have demanded that the EU tighten its immigration policies. Such calls have grown louder during the recent rioting in France after police in a Paris suburb fatally shot a teen of Algerian and Moroccan descent.

  • The Netherlands' government collapsed last weekend amid disagreements over new restrictions on refugees and asylum seekers.
  • In the U.K., Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is embracing a “stop the boats” campaign, echoing Australia’s crackdown on migrants and asylum seekers who try to reach its shores by boat.
  • And in eastern Germany, the anti-immigrant AFD party won a county government position last week, the first time since the Nazi era that a far-right populist candidate had won an election there.

Reality check: Robust immigration will be critical for continued economic growth in many wealthy nations where birth rates are plummeting, including the U.S.

  • Asylum seekers who flee their home countries and those who immigrate for other reasons can have vastly different circumstances — a distinction often lost in the whirl of heated political debates that can be stoked by racism.

Voters often respond to politicians' emotional narratives — "how it's going to change their lives in an immediate way," rather than "some sort of abstract, long-term economic need," the Migration Policy Institute's Susan Fratzke told Axios.

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