The answer to stemming the flow of migrants from troubled countries is not concrete walls and stricter laws – as British Prime Minister Theresa May and US President Donald Trump would have us believe. There’s no silver bullet to this complex challenge, but a more promising solution is to help improve the economy and rule of law in the migrants’ home nations.
The reasons emigrants embark on dangerous and expensive journeys abroad are complex and varied – although personal safety and economic security are the most visible driver of the need to move. However, one of the most prevalent causes – and one that gets the least amount of attention – is the violent competition over natural resources in migrants’ home countries and the revenue they generate.
In countries such as Myanmar, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe, autocratic states have protected their power through the control of revenues from natural resources ranging from timber, precious gems and gold, to oil and gas – and using the proceeds to buy off political interests and finance military conflicts within their own country to retain power. The funds are not used for the basic services and infrastructure that governments are supposed to provide. The lack of access to such services, especially when coupled with armed conflict and a failed state, has led to grinding poverty that drives an increasing number of people to flee lives engulfed in constant insecurity and hardship.
There is growing evidence that even the upheaval and massive exodus from Syria had roots in widespread water mismanagement and droughts that drove millions from their rural lands, contributing to the political uprising and today’s vicious conflict.
Many leaders in the United States and the United Kingdom are asking how money spent on international development and peace building benefits taxpayers at home. Here’s how: By helping countries establish legal systems and governance reforms that promote rule of law and end military conflicts, fight corruption and criminal activity, and increase transparency of revenues from natural resources. That improves economies and living standards, and allows more people to prosper in their own home countries.
It also levels the playing field for UK and US companies seeking responsible investments in countries long troubled by conflict and upheaval. In turn, that creates more jobs in the legitimate economies of struggling countries. And those laws and reforms help ensure that consumer countries – including the United Sates and the United Kingdom – are not contributing to the problem by purchasing products that fuel conflict and corrupt autocracies.
Progress has been made, for example in post-war Liberia, where the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the U.S. Forest Service have helped the government create systems to track the chain-of-custody of timber products back to their point of origin to ensure these products are legal and revenues are not used to support warring factions as in the past. Likewise, the US and UK governments have been working in more than 15 countries around the world – including Cameroon, Indonesia, Myanmar, and Peru – to fight organized environmental crime, establish rule of law, and implement systems for verifying that wood products imported into our countries comply with all relevant laws and regulations.
In Cameroon, for example, UK-funded programs helped to ensure (and monitor) that logging companies share a portion of timber revenues with local communities who lose significant income when their surrounding forests disappear.
These systems support the EU’s legal requirements under the EU Trade Agreement, which will also be adopted as the UK Trade Agreement after Brexit. These rules demand that operators establish “due diligence” systems to ensure that the wood products they import are not illegally produced and help companies comply with similar laws in the United States, Australia, Canada, and Japan.
These approaches help commodity-producing states reduce corruption and capture the value of the resources that are extracted within their borders. That money then can be channeled to improving the welfare of their citizens instead of enriching predatory elites.
These methods also help prevent resource conflicts that often divide along ethnic and religious lines and can explode into armed violence. In addition, they provide ways for discriminating consumers to vote with their dollars by buying products that are not supporting armed conflicts, illegal trade, slavery or forced labor, or other destructive practices.
Hardening borders, whether literally by building walls or figuratively by raising the bar for asylum seekers and visa requirements for other migrants on their own cannot stem the tide of migration unless the conditions compelling people to make the journey are also changed. These approaches may not be as rhetorically appealing as promises to “build a great wall” against immigration. But, ultimately, these are the solutions that will be more effective and more just.
Michael Jenkins is Founding President and CEO of Forest Trends, and Emily Harwell is an Advisor to Forest Trends.