What the Gulf countries should learn from the UK asylum controversy
The UK is currently gripped by controversy regarding how to handle asylum seekers entering its shores. The Gulf countries have their own, distinct brand of immigration challenges, but there is a universal lesson to be learned from the UK’s experience: unilateral solutions are ineffective, and international cooperation is central to confronting human traffickers.
The issue that all high-income countries, including the UK and those in the Gulf, face is a compound immigration problem composed of the following elements. First, a significant percentage of the world’s population have a strong desire to emigrate due to economic deprivation, natural disasters, human rights violations, and so on.
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Second, this desire is acute enough for them to be willing to voluntarily place themselves at the mercy of illegal human smugglers. Conversely, their desperation creates an incentive for human traffickers to systematically deceive and coerce these prospective migrants.
As a result, three groups of people will end up at the border of rich countries: those who are knowingly willing to make a high risk attempt to enter, facilitated by human smugglers; those who are trying to enter, but were deceived into doing it in a high risk manner by predatory human traffickers; and those who are involuntarily trying to enter because they have been kidnapped by predatory human traffickers.
It is unlikely that a humane and politically feasible solution to this problem will emerge so long as significant levels of international economic inequality persist. People generally want to live their lives close to their loved ones where they grew up if satisfactory economic opportunities exist, but migration racketeers stand to make so much money by deceiving and coercing hapless prospective migrants.
The ease of legal entry into the GCC countries means that human trafficking is a smaller problem – relatively speaking – than it is in a country like the US. However, it still exists, and Gulf authorities face the same quandary as those in the UK and other high-income countries. Despite the absence of a silver bullet, the various imperfect solutions to this problem differ in their effectiveness and ethicality.
The illegal immigration bill put forward by UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman seeks to decrease the frequency of dangerous attempts at crossing the sea separating France from the UK by threatening to automatically deport those who try it, even if they qualify for political asylum.
Some of the ethical problems raised by this bill were displayed in a cringe-inducing committee hearing last week, where the Secretary was directly asked how a prospective asylum seeker should enter if they do not come from one of the countries that already has a system in place (such as Syria, Ukraine, and so on), or that have a UN human rights office. After plenty of umming and aahing from the Secretary and her team, it became apparent that such prospective asylum seekers essentially had no option.
The political fallout has forced the UK government to strike a $500m deal with France to try to prevent illegal hazardous sea crossings at their point of origin, and to process immigration requests on the Gallic side of the Channel. This underscores a key lesson that many rich countries are so reluctant to digest; you can’t solve human trafficking problems by unilaterally tightening your border. Working with the country of origin – or at least the transit countries – is essential to any effective approach.
In the case of the Gulf countries, human trafficking often takes the form of deception: racketeers will go to poor villages in South Asia and trick prospective migrants into believing that a desirable position awaits them in the Gulf. Not only will the alleged salary be high – they will also perform a pleasant job, such as working as an administrative assistant. This will lead to them taking on a debt that they don’t realize is beyond their means, since the actual job waiting for them has a much lower salary than advertised. Moreover, for the least fortunate, they may find themselves working in jobs that they never would have left their homes for, such as domestic helpers or even worse.
Erecting strict border controls will not solve this problem, since by the time a migrant arrives in the Gulf, they are already in debt, and the racketeers are quite happy to hold the entire family accountable. They have no choice but to accept the terrible and low-wage job that awaits them because they fear for their own lives and those of their loved ones.
What needs to happen is the prevention of the deception and coercion that starts in rural South Asia. Unilateralism is of little use – the Gulf countries have no ability to influence migration racketeering in other countries. The only viable long-term solution is to work with the sending country to address the problem at its root. Ideally, these efforts would be regional to avoid human traffickers simply redirecting their victims from one Gulf country to another.
For example, citizens of the Philippines cannot get exit visas from their own country to work in other countries without going through a system that precludes some of the most basic forms of human trafficking. While this approach is imperfect and has its own corruption-induced shortcomings, it certainly works better than the apparent indifference that other governments in Asia have toward their citizens’ interests.
The Gulf countries should study the Philippines system and improve upon it, and then fund the development of more advanced versions in other sending countries. The considerable short-term cost would be more than compensated for by the long-run decrease in inward human trafficking, and it would also be a massive diplomatic coup. There is a real opportunity for the Gulf countries to become world leaders in humane, multilateral approaches to combating human trafficking.
In the West, such approaches are often shunned because immigration policy is more about perceptions than reality. People like to hear about walls being erected, and they prefer to imagine “hordes” of benefit-scrounging immigrants being physically denied access rather than responsible multilateral efforts at impeding the work of criminal gangs. The Gulf countries should shun this affinity for performative immigration policy and look to build one based on a sound understanding of the underlying causes.
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