Illegal Immigration: A 21st Century Crisis


Governments, regional organizations and international agencies have failed to come up with sensible answers or effective policies to address the increasing waves of illegal migrants. Credit: Javier García/IPS
  • by Joseph Chamie (portland, usa)
  • Inter Press Service

In addition to poverty, civil conflict and violence, the increasing high temperatures, widespread droughts, frequent flooding and rising sea levels are leaving parts of the world unlivable. The result will be climate-fueled instability with millions of people likely migrating for their survival.

Unfortunately, governments, regional organizations and international agencies have failed to come up with sensible answers or effective policies to address the increasing waves of illegal migrants, including caravans of thousands, arriving at borders and the growing numbers of migrants unlawfully resident.

The recently negotiated Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, for example, has done relatively little to address illegal migration. Other than fences, barriers, closed borders, pushbacks and official statements, governments appear ill prepared to deal with the growing numbers unlawfully crossing their borders.

With the assistance of social media and smugglers, thousands of migrants are arriving at borders by boat, motor vehicle and even by foot, pleading to enter the country. Refusing entry and/or deporting them to their home countries, especially when migrants claim asylum or come from failed states, have created serious dilemmas for governments.

Also, governments seem reluctant to acknowledge that visa overstayers and unauthorized migrants don’t expect to be deported. This expectation is largely based on the experiences of millions of unauthorized migrants permitted to live in host countries.

In many countries the public is displeased with their government’s handling of illegal immigration. This dissatisfaction contributes to anti-migrant sentiments, demonstrations against illegal immigration, xenophobia and violence towards migrants.

International surveys have found that approximately 15 percent of the world’s adults, or more than 800 million, want to migrate to another country. If children are included, the number of people wanting to migrate increases to more than 1 billion, or one-eighth of the world’s population of nearly 8 billion.

The preferred destinations are wealthy nations, with the United States being the top choice, followed by Canada, Germany, France, Australia and the United Kingdom. Those countries offer employment, services, opportunities, benefits, safety, human rights and security.

Among the economic, social and environmental forces influencing illegal migration are population size imbalances. For example, whereas the populations of Latin America and the Caribbean and Northern America were about the same size in 1950, today the population of Latin America is nearly double that of Northern America and is projected to remain so for the foreseeable future (Figure 1).

Source: United Nations Population Division.

Another noteworthy population size imbalance is between Europe and Africa. Whereas, in 1950 Europe’s population was double the size of Africa’s, by 2020 the demographic situation was the reverse. By 2050 Africa’s population is expected to be more than triple the size of Europe’s, 2.5 versus 0.7 billion (Figure 2).

Source: United Nations Population Division.

World population is also substantially larger than in was in the recent past. Today’s world population of nearly 8 billion is quadruple the number of people in 1921 and double the number in 1974.

Population projections point to continued demographic growth. World population is expected to reach 9 billion in 2037 and 10 billion in 2056, with most of the growth occurring in developing countries. Africa alone is expected to gain more than one billion people by midcentury (Figure 3).

Source: United Nations Population Division.

The asymmetry of human rights is also contributing to illegal immigration. The Universal Declaration of Human rights states that everyone has the right to leave and return to their country (Article 13). However, the Declaration does not give one the right to entry another country without authorization.

Lacking a legal right to emigrate, migrants turn to illegal migration with many claiming the right to seek asylum, Article 14 of the Declaration, to enter the destination country. Once in the country, unauthorized migrants believe they will not be repatriated even if their asylum claim is rejected, which is typically the case.

Of the world’s nearly 300 million migrants, the number of unauthorized migrants is likely to be no less than one-fifth of all migrants, or about 60 million. In the United States, for example, about one-fourth of the foreign-born population, or approximately 11 million, are unauthorized migrants,

The European Commission reports taking strong actions to prevent illegal migration through ensuring that each European Union (EU) country controls its own portion of EU’s external borders. Increasingly EU states are erecting walls, fences and even military force and technology to secure their borders against illegal immigration. Recently, the interior ministers from 12 member states demanded that the EU finance border-wall projects to stop migrants entering through Belarus.

Despite those actions, illegal immigration to the EU from January through August 2021 increased by 64 percent over the previous year. Along the western Balkan route, illegal crossings to the EU nearly doubled, with most of those migrants from Syria, Afghanistan and Morocco.

In the United States, illegal immigration has reached record levels. Officials detained 1.66 million illegal immigrants, including 145 thousand unaccompanied children, at the U.S. southern border in fiscal year 2021, the highest level ever recorded. The migrants were from 160 countries, with many seeking economic opportunities.

Many governments tolerate illegal immigration. Recently issued administration guidelines in the United States, for example, instruct immigration officials to no longer detain and repatriate migrants based on their illegal status alone; the focus is on those posing safety threats. Also, in Germany enforcement against illegal entry and unlawful residence is generally weak and authorities tend to look the other way regarding unauthorized migrant workers.

How best to address those unlawfully resident in a country remains a controversial political issue that most governments have been unable to resolve effectively. While some wish to offer a pathway to citizenship, others recommend repatriation and still others prefer to maintain the status quo.

Reasonable future levels of legal migration will be insufficient to absorb even a fraction of the estimated 1 billion people who want to migrate to wealthy countries. Consequently, future illegal migration will likely be many times greater than today’s levels.

In addition, in the coming decades climate-related migration will become an even more critical challenge. A recent landmark ruling by the UN Human Rights Committee found it unlawful for governments to return people to countries where their lives might be threatened by a climate crisis.

Tens of millions of people are expected to be displaced by 2050 because of life-threatening climate and environmental changes. Some estimate that as many as 143 million people in South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America are likely to be displaced due to climate change.

Among the many aspects of the illegal immigration crisis that governments need to address are three critical questions:

  1. How to address the millions of unauthorized migrants currently resident in their countries?
  2. How to respond to the millions of unauthorized migrants arriving at borders and attempting to enter?
  3. How to address the millions of people to be displaced by climate change?

Failing to effectively address those and related issues will only exacerbate the 21st century illegal immigration crisis that will only worsen with climate change.

Joseph Chamie is a consulting demographer, a former director of the United Nations Population Division and author of numerous publications on population issues, including his recent book, “Births, Deaths, Migrations and Other Important Population Matters.”

© Inter Press Service (2021) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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