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Hardline On Immigration: Human Rights Or Democratic Will?

Aboard the Aquarius rescue boat this week
Aboard the Aquarius rescue boat this week
Delilah Roberts

PARIS — Central American migrant parents and children are reuniting in Texas. After being stranded off the coast of Italy, the Aquarius ship has now safely docked in the Spanish port of Valencia and the dozens of migrants have been cared for and asylum requests submitted. But even if the waters have calmed and the front pages are moving on, the migrant crisis is definitely not going away.

Along the Mediterranean coast and U.S.-Mexico border, in South Asia refugee camps and Eastern European parliaments, hard questions are coming into focus: How far will policymakers go to enforce anti-immigration policies? Can you shut down the border without violating basic human rights? How will it play out when people return to the voting booth?

Campaigning on a platform of rigid limits to immigration has been helping leaders get elected in functioning democracies around the world. In the U.S., Donald Trump's promised wall at the border with Mexico and vows of "zero-tolerance" have been a common rallying cry and the White House has held firm amid criticism of the travel ban linked to Muslim countries and other hardline immigration policies. But when evidence began to circulate of the effects of a new policy to separate migrant parents and children crossing the border, Trump's tough stance went too far. Polls have found that some two-thirds of Americans opposed the policy, which Trump eventually reversed course this week with an executive order to keep parents and children together.

We won't be Europe's doormat anymore.

But nobody should expect the White House to go soft on the issue in any larger sense.

Trump publicly hashed out what he called a "dilemma" on Wednesday. "If you're weak, which some people would like you to be, if you're really, really pathetically weak, the country is going to be overrun with millions of people," he said after a meeting with Republican lawmakers. "And if you're strong, then you don't have any heart. That's a tough dilemma."

In Italy, newly elected coalition government has come into office with its own fierce anti-migrant rhetoric, and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has so far shown few signs of worrying about his heart. In his first major action since taking office, Salvini ordered last week that the Aquarius rescue ship with 106 immigrants aboard not be given access to dock on Italian shore, reversing national policy (and longstanding maritime practice). "We won't be Europe's doormat anymore," Salvini declared.

Writing in the Italian daily La Stampa, Stefano Stefanini argues that Salvini has so far been successful in forcing other European countries to confront the issue, which for too long has fallen disproportionately on Italy and its long coastline that serves as the southern border of Europe. "Let's not delude ourselves in thinking the problem is resolved," he writes. "Immigration is a problem for Europe in the way that it cuts deeply into the fabric of the different nations." Both Trump and Salvini believe their duty is to severely limit immigration in the interest of their country's current citizens, and the human right's emergencies that occur are merely a factor to be managed away.

Another European leader setting new standards for migrant crackdowns is Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Shaun Walker of The Guardian reports from Budapest that the sharp-speaking prime minister forced through legislation this week that will make it a crime to help undocumented migrants.

U.S. border holding facility in McAllen, TX. (See more about OneShot here)

But neither Trump, Salvini nor Orban could imagine what Bangladesh is facing. Already seriously limited in terms of wealth, infrastructure, power and gas supply, political corruption and instability — not to mention natural disasters — the South Asian nation has been forced to add 1.1 million penniless Rohingya refugees over the past year. The killings and forced exodus from Myanmar of the Muslim minority people has left most of the survivors on to the 10 square mile Cox's Bazar refugee camp in southern Bangladesh.

The Financial Times" Kiran Stacey reports: "The problem for the Rohingya is that while most are too scared to return to Myanmar, their presence in Bangladesh is causing difficulties for the government in Dhaka. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who will fight an election later this year, has refused to allow the Rohingya to gain refugee status, to travel outside the camps or to build anything resembling a permanent dwelling."

"While this overburdened country has shown remarkable generosity, compassion may fade as the country's scant resources are diverted to people who aren't its nationals," wrote Feliz Solomon, a writer for TIME Magazine, late last year.

The movement of people — forced and otherwise — across borders is a major issue of our times. As such it is ripe for exploitation by leaders playing off fear. But what we do in the face of those coming from far away in search of safety or simply a better life is not a simple question. It is not a choice between human rights or the popular will, but a question of how to reconcile the two.

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