Why ‘Border Control’ Politics Is More About Control Than Borders

Sometimes I pick a newsletter topic because it’s in the headlines. Sometimes it’s to point out a phenomenon that shapes politics around the world, in ways that often go unnoticed, and to explain how to spot the fingerprints of news events that reliably recur month after month.

Today’s topic is both.

The headline came last Thursday, when the British government announced a plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda. How far the UK program will go in practice and whether it can withstand a legal challenge remain open questions. But if implemented, evidence points to dire consequences for those deported: a similar Israeli program Thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers were deported to Rwanda between 2014 and 2017, leaving them destitute and vulnerable to exploitation.

“There’s a very efficient network of smugglers and traffickers there, and they already knew that people would come from Israel, and they would have money with them,” said Lior Birger, a researcher at Tel-Aviv University and a co-author. author of a study of refugees sent from Israel to Rwanda. “They would rob them or threaten to harm them if they don’t pay.” Most deportees eventually fled to Europe to apply for asylum, partly because they feared for their safety in Rwanda.

But implemented or not, the UK plan is also an example of a global political phenomenon that isn’t really about asylum or even migration. Rather, it is rooted in a quirk of political psychology that, when cleverly exploited by politicians, has not only affected the lives of thousands of refugees and migrants, but also shaped right-wing politics and political disruption around the world. has fueled.

It comes down to two words: control and salience.

Years ago, when I first started covering right-wing populism, immigration and refugee crises, I noticed something that seemed very confusing at first. For much of the audience in many of the countries I’ve written about, “border crossings” are a terrifying phenomenon, even if the absolute numbers involved are very small. But for many of those people, “immigration”, even though many more people are involved, and even if many of them are still refugees and economic migrants, is a completely different and much less threatening concept.

People crossing borders and applying for asylum are in fact how refugee protection should work: there is no prior authorization system that allows people to flee persecution, or directs them to a specific country of refuge. But for many of the people I’ve talked to over the years, that didn’t matter. All they saw were people crossing the border without permission and a government that seemed unable or unwilling to impose control.

And political psychology Research shows that feelings of loss of control make people more likely to identify with powerful groups in order to protect themselves. An us-versus-them worldview is divisive but simple – join “us” to be safe from “them”.

That can be a powerful tool for politicians who trade in us-versus-them populism, as evidenced by the frequency with which the idea of ​​”taking back control” of immigration and borders appears in political slogans. But to handle it, they need another element: salience.

If something stands out, in political science terms, it means people are paying attention to it. The more obvious an issue is to a particular person, the more likely that person will vote or base other decisions on it. So if us-versus-them populists want to contain panic about unchecked borders, they must first draw the public’s attention to the issue long enough for them to worry about it.

Sometimes that is easy. Of course, when more than 900,000 refugees from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries arrived in Europe in 2015, the scale of the crisis made headlines, and far-right parties like Germany’s AfD won votes by promising to take back control of the borders. to get.

But sometimes politicians’ own actions can increase the conspicuousness. “Politicians can seize opportunities that are not of crisis proportions to fuel fear, and fear is a very powerful tool for politicians to mobilize their domestic grassroots,” Stephanie R. Schwartz, a University of Southern California political scientist who studies politics studies forced migration, told me.

Keep in mind the Tampa affair† In August 2001, a Norwegian freighter called the Tampa rescued 433 asylum seekers, many of them women and young children, from a disintegrating boat in the Indian Ocean. As the boat was nearly empty as the boat was intended to support only a crew of 27, the Tampa captain attempted to transport the rescued to Christmas Island, a remote Australian area. Had the government agreed, the case would likely have been a minor news item at most — part of an ongoing but relatively low-key debate about migrants arriving by boat.

But instead Prime Minister John Howard sent special forces to board the boat and forcibly prevent it from entering Australian waters. The move was controversial, but the ensuing debate and media coverage allowed Howard to argue that Australia’s borders were dangerously unchecked.

“We decide who enters this country and the conditions in which they come,” Howard said in defense of his decision to prevent the refugees from landing. A few weeks later, the September 11 attacks reinforced the sense of outside threat in many Australians. It hardly mattered that just one few thousand in total, people arrived by boat that year, representing less than one percent of the total net migration to Australia in 2001.

“The high numbers of unauthorized border crossings were a construct,” Schwartz told me. “Politicians don’t necessarily build their platforms based on an outside public opinion that exists in and of itself. People’s views on having refugees in their communities are shaped by the media, shaped by what politicians say.”

Howard was re-elected in November.

Politicians all over the world have followed that script. In the United States, for example, Donald Trump’s racist claim that rapists and criminals were crossing the southern border helped him in the 2016 presidential election.

Which brings us to the recently announced British plan to send migrants to Rwanda.

When Prime Minister Boris Johnson campaigned for Britain to leave the European Union in the 2016 Brexit referendum, it was easy to make immigration controls conspicuous. The refugee influx of 2015 was still fresh in the minds of the public. The European Union’s freedom of movement could easily be portrayed as a loss of control over Britain’s borders. And the referendum campaign saturated media attention for months.

So Johnson had a built-in audience for his message that Britain needed to “take back control”, and was able to portray Brexit – and later his own premiership – as the way to make that happen.

But these days, other matters are on the public agenda. An Ipsos of February poll found that the public was most concerned about the economy and the pandemic. The war in Ukraine now dominates the headlines most days. And last week police fined Johnson for attending a party during Britain’s Covid-19 lockdown, in violation of rules his own government had made – the latest installment in the unfolding “Partygate” scandal that has led many to request his resignation.

“Immigration has become number 11 for the British public, while in the Brexit referendum it was number one, two or three. It’s fallen a lot,” said Sunder Katwala, director of British Future, a think tank that focuses on immigration and identity issues. “They’re trying to bring it back as a problem when it’s actually quite low.”

I cannot speculate on the inner motivations of the government officials responsible for the Rwanda plan. But the announcement last week, immediately after news of Johnson’s Covid fine came out, certainly drew attention to the government’s tough immigration policies.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean it will prove to be effective. Attracting attention for a few days is not necessarily the same as convincing the public that there is a real border crisis. Or that this government has the right solution.

“There is a case where they make a mistake,” Ketwala said. “They have always seen loud talk about immigration as a potential advantage for them over their opponents, but they have a very weak reputation right now.”


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