Donald Trump, the grandson of an impoverished Scots crofter, newly elected as the President of the United States. Nigel Farage, proud descendant of immigrant Huguenot weavers to London’s deprived East End, now the firebrand of post-European Britain. Together, they are poster boys for the transformative power of global migration. One wonders, then, what Trump’s Scottish ancestors and French Farages of yesteryear – who travelled to seek a better life – would have made of their descendants’ glee in stoking up hatred of immigrants.
Because throughout human history, people have needed and wanted to move – to escape poverty, war, lack of opportunity. Today, it is in the rich West that people hope to find the fertile ground where their dreams can take root and flourish. Across vast tracts of Africa, Central Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, people are fleeing terrible governments, and they are doing so in their millions. This is the kind of bad government that makes parents unable to feed their children, where black markets and bribes are the only way to get by, where poverty, lack of education and corruption cripple lives. State-sanctioned monopolies and government departments protect entire sectors of economies. Those business opportunities left open for ordinary people are beset by petty corruption and rent-seeking.
To see how ravaging the effects of this can be, one only has to look to Tunisia in 2010 when a young man selling fruit was shaken down by the local police, his stock was thrown to the floor and his electronic scales confiscated. In frustration with this corrupt system the fruit seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, poured petrol over his body and burned himself to death. His actions sparked the Arab Spring whose consequences still reverberate through the region. It is not surprising that so many people who live under this kind of oppression, and who see via the internet the opportunities available in the prosperous West, want to emigrate to a better place.
For many years, the United States was that better place. Inscribed at the base of America’s most iconic monument, the Statue of Liberty, were the words “Give me your tired your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”. This was immigration as an open welcome to the most disadvantaged in society. Australia, now one of the most prosperous countries on the planet, was once a penal colony. Both these countries showed what could be achieved when governments supported and encouraged individual hopes and dreams.
But today the world no longer has vast underpopulated new continents to fill up with those seeking a better life. Welcoming refugees into existing countries is not easy. Germany is struggling to absorb and assimilate over 1 million new arrivals. Even this significant number fails to make a dent in the huge populations around the world that are seeking a better life for themselves and their children.
There is, though, a proven solution to this seemingly intractable problem. Hong Kong today is one of the world’s richest cities. Only two generations ago, after the Second World War, millions of people were escaping civil war, revolution and political upheaval in China. Arriving in this tiny British colony with nothing, many of them set up home in vast slums. It wasn’t a promising start – there were no natural resources, but commerce flourished because it was supported and encouraged by the government. For all the deep complexities of empire, Britain exported its rule of law, institutions, and property rights and created an economic miracle. Because of Hong Kong’s spectacular economic growth, its housing, education and health all dramatically improved. Today the city has the highest life expectancy of any territory in the world and the greatest concentration of millionaires. And its prosperity has been contagious – it was just across the border in Shenzhen that China kick-started its resurgent love affair with capitalism setting it on the path to prosperity. It’s not only Hong Kong that has benefitted from good government. The other original Asian Tiger economies of Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan show what is possible when people are allowed to flourish.
Deaths in the Channel Tunnel, people-smugglers at the Mexico-US border, bodies washed up on Europe’s beaches. The images we’re bombarded with make us despair at the problem of mass migration and founder at possible solutions. They make us fearful and angry. But no matter how many boats are turned away from the coast of Australia, no matter how high Trump’s wall, people will still come. If politicians like Trump and Farage truly want to stop immigration, they must first confront the underlying cause which is bad governments and a stifling lack of opportunity in many parts of the world.
The solution is simple and proven, it does not involve importing people, but exporting good government – creating places, cities like Hong Kong wear the rule of law is established and enforced fairly and fertile ground created for people’s dreams and aspirations. It is here where people can flourish where prosperity and opportunity will no longer be constrained by borders.
James Fischelis is an urban consultant who wrote the report Prosperity Without Borders for the Legatum Institute.