Anxiety About Immigration is a Global Issue
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Anxiety About Immigration is a Global Issue

Remi Adekoya
Remi Adekoya
5 min read

Much has been written about anti-immigrant sentiments in the West in recent years. Brexit, Trump’s election, and the moderate success of political movements hostile to immigration in countries like Italy, Germany and Sweden have provoked much admonishment of Western societies by various intellectuals and commentators, usually of leftist leanings. What has not received much attention are contemporary attitudes to immigration in countries outside the Western hemisphere. What do Nigerians, Indians, Turks and Mexicans think about migrants coming to their countries? This we don’t hear much about.

Two recent surveys on the issue provide interesting results. Pew Research queried respondents in 27 nations across six continents, asking whether they felt their countries should let in more immigrants, fewer, or about the same as they do at present. In European nations like Greece and Italy that have had huge influxes of migrants in recent years, the numbers wanting fewer or no more immigrants were high—82 and 71 percent respectively. But in several other Western countries, including some perceived as being hostile to immigration, people are more sympathetic to immigration than in other parts of the world.

The percentage of people wanting fewer or no more immigrants coming to their country was higher in South Africa (65 percent), Argentina (61 percent), Kenya (60 percent), Nigeria (50 percent), India (45 percent), and Mexico (44 percent) than it was in Australia (38 percent), the U.K. (37 percent) or the U.S. (29 percent). In all 27 countries surveyed, less than a third of respondents said their country should let in more immigrants. A 2017 Ipsos MORI survey on global “nativist” trends painted a similar picture. When asked if they thought their country would be “stronger” if it “stopped immigration” altogether, more Turks (61 percent) and Indians (45 percent) answered in the affirmative than Brits (31 percent), Australians (30 percent), Germans (37 percent) or South Africans (37 percent). On the question of whether they felt like “strangers in their own country”—another indicator of hostility towards immigration—more Turks (57 percent), South Africans (54 percent), Brazilians (46 percent) and Indians (39 percent) answered yes than Germans (38 percent), Brits (36 percent) or Australians (36 percent). Finally, when asked whether employers should “prioritize” hiring locals over immigrants, 74 percent of Turks, 64 percent of Peruvians, 62 percent of Indians and 60 percent of South Africans agreed, compared to 58 percent of Americans, 48 percent of Brits and 17 percent of Swedes.

The idea that so-called “nativism” or hostility towards immigration is confined to white Westerners is a fallacy; it is a global phenomenon that is often stronger in non-Western countries. Of course, I wouldn’t hold my breath for a spate of articles in international media on the worrying trend of “nativism” in India or condemnations of Kenyans for wanting fewer immigrants in their country. The moral outrage of many white progressives and most intellectuals of color in the West on this subject is solely reserved for white societies; if black or brown people share exactly the same sentiments that white people are being lambasted for, it will either be greeted with silence or with all sorts of justificatory rationalizations.

Of course, these survey results do not tell us why people responded in this manner—why a majority of Kenyans and so many Nigerians want fewer or no immigrants coming to their countries. We wouldn’t conclude from these figures alone that they are xenophobes with a natural hatred for foreigners, and, for the same reason, we shouldn’t assume that all those people in the West calling for less immigration are racist.

These surveys suggest that high levels of immigration are a global concern. And this concern has sometimes spilled over into ugly behavior in countries like South Africa. In recent years, dozens of African immigrants have been killed in attacks by South African locals who want them to “pack their bags and leave” as they are “stealing” jobs and resources and engaging in “criminal activities.” Sound familiar? Are these black South Africans attacking black African migrants because they hate black people?

So why is it so difficult for us to have a reasonable discussion about immigration without descending into accusations of racism and xenophobia? One reason is because the direction of travel for most immigrants is the West. Latest UN estimates suggest the total number of international migrants—those living in a country other than their country of birth—stands at 258 million. While Asia hosts a sizeable share of that number, the majority are concentrated in the rich West: Europe, North America and Oceania—all regions where international migrants account for at least 10 percent of the populations compared to a less than 2 percent share of the populations in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Meanwhile, the majority of immigrants tend to originate from the poorer, southern parts of the globe, with India and Mexico providing the highest numbers. This means we have more people migrating from black and brown-majority countries to white-majority countries than vice-versa. Consequently, once these white-majority populations start questioning immigration levels, many white progressives, unable to discuss any issue involving black and brown people rationally, come out with furious accusations of racism. They feel the need, or at least pretend to feel the need, to defend the “victims” of this world against evil white people standing in their way of a better life.

Most intellectuals of Asian or African heritage living in the West react in the same way to the debate about immigration, interpreting questions raised in white-majority societies as a rejection of people who look like them. Imagine how different the global discussion about immigration would be if there were as many Brits and Swedes migrating to Nigeria and Kenya as the other way round. It would be an infinitely more rational and objective discussion on the pros and cons of immigration in general as no particular race or ethnicity would be able to frame the discussion as an attack on them specifically. It would be easier—much easier—to acknowledge that anxiety about immigration is a global issue, not one confined to the West.

As I write this, a voice in my head scoffs: It’s all very well for you to talk about rationality. You have an EU passport and can go pretty much anywhere in the world, whenever you like. It’s true that, but for the accident of birth, I could be any one of those people dying in the Mediterranean trying to get to Europe. I have no moral counter-argument to this voice in my head, just a practical one. The reality is that no rich country today can sustain an open-door immigration policy for long. In a 2017 survey of six African nations—Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, Senegal and Tanzania—43–75 percent of the citizens said they would move elsewhere given the opportunity. This translates to well over 200 million people from these six countries alone who would emigrate if the opportunity arose, presumably to one of the world’s rich countries. This is the reality that Western governments cannot afford to ignore. The fact that so many Kenyans, Nigerians and South Africans would like to emigrate elsewhere but don’t want immigrants coming into their country is a testament to our universal human capacity for expecting from others what we ourselves are not ready to give.

The data from Pew Research and Ipsos MORI is incontestable: concerns about immigration are not confined to the West. It is time we started discussing global immigration in a more grown up way in the hope of coming up with a sustainable solution, rather than assuming the worst of each other and resorting to name-calling and selective moral outrage. Is it too much to hope that our common anxieties should unite us rather than divide us?

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Remi Adekoya

Remi Adekoya is a Ph.D. student researching group identity at Sheffield University.