Want to Help the Refugees? Teach Migration as Part of IR

Authored By 
Margaret Peters
Blog contributor 
Resident Faculty Fellow
September 10, 2015

This piece first appeared on Duck of Minerva blogsite on September 10, 2015. It is published here with the author’s permission.

Recent pictures of Syrian refugee crisis from 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying dead on a beach in Turkey to migrants sitting in camps in Hungary have increased the calls for the West to “do something.” Instead of doing the easiest, most effective, and least expensive thing to protect Syrians (and other refugees) – allowing them to enter and stay in wealthy countries as refugees – there has been much buck passing about whose responsibility it is to protect these refugees.

Increasing anti-immigrant sentiment has been blamed for most of the unwillingness on the part of both the OECD countries and wealthy autocracy to resettle the refugees.  Yet, the problem is not an increase in anti-immigrant sentiment – as Judith Goldstein and I show, anti-immigrant sentiment, even towards low-skill immigrants, has fallen since the Great Recession in the US and probably in Europe as well – instead, the problem is the lack of a powerful, pro-immigration lobby.

While refugee and asylum policy have, at least since World War II, been used to reward allies and humiliate adversaries, these policies are not solely determined by foreign policy concerns. Instead, they are part and parcel of the larger immigration policy debate, determined by competing domestic demands. On the side of greater openness have stood business, immigrants themselves, and humanitarians and cosmopolitans. On the side of more restrictions have been native labor (although not all unions), fiscal conservatives worried about the impact of immigration.

What has changed the balance of power between these two sides? Why do the nativists seem to be winning? Businesses in developed countries have become less supportive of open immigration than they once were. With increasing openness to trade, businesses that once employed many low-skill immigrants have closed their doors. With increasing ability to off-shore production, others have simply moved to the developing world.  Finally, with increased labor-saving technology, still others have replaced immigrant workers with machines.  In a world with limits on how much business can lobby, this ability to replace immigrant labor with machines or labor oversee and the closure of other firms have decreased business’s support for open, low-skill immigration, including support for refugee and asylum policies, and given greater voice to those who support limits on migration

Given that businesses no longer support open immigration as much, what can we do to support greater openness beyond giving to the charities that work with the refugees in the camps or elsewhere? We need a new, open borders constituency to fill the gap and counteract the weight of nativists. Here, I think scholars (and others who care about the issue) can play two important roles. First, we need to let policymakers know that large swaths of the population care about resettling the refugees.  Politics is often won by those who show up. Unfortunately for the refugees fleeing war, the anti-immigration side has been much better at galvanizing its members to contact their Member of Congress or Parliament. The pro-openness camp should take a page from their playbook and contact their representatives.

Second, and more long-term, we need to take our role as teachers seriously and use it to shape future policy by teaching our students about the importance of open borders. Hainmueller and Hiscox have shown that greater support for free trade among the educated is a product of students learning that free trade is good in their studies. Given the scholarship that has shown that immigration is a net good for developed countries, for the migrants themselves, for developing countries, and that migration to democracies may lead to democratic regime change at home, it should be easy to convince students to support more open borders if only we would integrate migration into our IR classes. I urge those who want to do something about the refugee crisis to teach migration in their IR courses in hopes that future generations are willing to open their doors to migrants in need.

Margaret Peters is an ISPS Resident Faculty Fellow and assistant professor of political science at Yale. She is currently finishing her book project, “When Business Abandoned Immigration: Firms and the Remaking of Globalization.”

Area of study