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Migrant Lives

The Bad Faith Of Those "Legal Immigration" Arguments Of Anti-Migrant Politicians

From the UK to Italy to the U.S., the declarations by politicians that they only want to stop illegal immigration become meaningless if there are virtually no ways to request asylum before leaving home and arriving in a foreign country.

Photo of Hidalgo County Precinct 3 Constable Deputies gather information from migrants who crossed the Rio Grande in an area known as El Rincon del Diablo, the Devil's Corner.

Hidalgo County Precinct 3 Constable Deputies gather information from migrants who crossed the Rio Grande in an area known as El Rincon del Diablo, the Devil's Corner.

Ginevra Falciani


It turns out that hardline anti-immigration politicians aren't against immigration after all — but only the right kind.

Take former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson: “For centuries, our United Kingdom has had a proud history of welcoming people from overseas, including many fleeing persecution,”Johnson declared last year. “However, we cannot sustain a parallel illegal system, which is also not fair on those who are seeking to come here legally.”

Johnson was speaking shortly before the Nationality and Borders Act became law, which aimed to discourage migration and make it more difficult for migrants to settle in the UK.

The same rhetoric has been picked up by current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to justify the government's controversial Illegal Migration Bill, which would prohibit asylum claims from people who arrive in the UK by boat across the Channel.

British Tories, like many other conservative politicians around the world, love to say they are not against immigration per se — just those who “skip the line.”

Sunak argues that illegal immigration is not only bad for British society, but also that the UK's refugee system is being overwhelmed: “If we can’t stop the boats, our ability to help genuine refugees in the future will be constrained," he said in March. "Full control of our borders will allow us to decide who to help and to provide safe and legal roots to those most in need.”

But this is a fundamentally false argument.

Today, there is no way to enter the UK legally if you come from many parts of the world. Unless the UK changes its laws on refugee status, it's mostly impossible to request asylum before leaving home and arriving in a foreign country.

Asylum ban 

That the legal migration argument was nothing more than political propaganda became glaringly obvious when the British Home Secretary Suella Braverman couldn’t name a single “safe and legal way” in which a theoretical orphaned child from a war-torn country could arrive in the UK and apply for asylum.

The UK's asylum and residence permit laws are so stringent that, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Illegal Migration Bill will amount to an “asylum ban,” which makes it a “clear breach of the Refugee Convention," the fundamental international law that has governed refugee policy since 1951.

In Europe, more countries are introducing anti-immigration laws.

Responding to this criticism, Sunak points out that people who come to the UK illegally do so after passing through a number of safe European countries where they could have already applied for asylum. He does not take into account that many of those who try to enter the UK do so because they have family members there, and it is therefore the country where their application is most likely to be accepted.

Photo of British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak

Rishi Sunak via Instagram

Everywhere all at once

The UK is not an exception. Restricting migration is a growing trend in the West, and countries including the U.S. and Australia have become trailblazers in this regard, after benefiting from migration for years.

The situation is dire for migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, where on March 27 at least 40 people died during a fire in a detention center for people trying to reach the U.S., while it's almost impossible for most people from Latin America to obtain a work visa to legally enter the United States.

Australia has an even stricter policy when it comes to refugees arriving by boat without a valid visa, who are automatically taken to offshore detention centers, where migrants are held in horrific conditions, sometimes for years, while their claims are processed. Despite recent efforts to ease this process, progress has been slow.

In Europe, more countries are introducing anti-immigration laws. A 2021 Danish law allows the country to transfer asylum seekers to a third country outside the EU while their application is completed. Meanwhile, Danish companies complain about a labor shortage, but no major party seems to want to propose relaxing the rules.

Faced with the increasingly common deaths of people crossing the Mediterranean, dubbed Europe’s largest graveyard, conservative politicians often argue that it is necessary to focus on legal pathways to immigration for those who qualify, while preventing “economic migrants” from leaving their homeland.

But recent EU policy choices have created a systematic and sustained effort to stop migration, with profound effects on legal flows.

Countries most exposed to this phenomenon, such as Italy, are also taking the same path.

Just take a plane

In Italy, the debate is back in the news again after the deaths of 87 people just off the coast of Cutro in the shipwreck of a boat from Turkey.

“Immigration should be governed to bring people in legally. Not to feed an illegal system that serves the interests of smugglers," argues Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.

“Open wide the doors to those fleeing real war, while many are the fake refugees fleeing fake wars,” says her Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini.

Very few nations have organized — mostly symbolic — airlifts for refugees from nations in great distress.

After the Cutro shipwreck, Meloni’s government passed a new decree to combat illegal immigration, which will only worsen the conditions of those seeking asylum. Her government also updated the regulations on legal migration flows so that, she said, those who are eligible to arrive in Italy can do so legally.

But at the moment, no one can claim refugee status in Italy while outside of its borders.Often, the only way to enter is by crossing the Mediterranean Sea on an overcrowded dinghy, or traveling the dangerous, often deadly Balkan route.

There are many accounts of foreigners arriving in Europe via Libya who would have preferred to take a plane, which is safer and costs less. But getting a tourist visa to Europe with the idea of seeking asylum once you land is basically impossible if you have a Syrian or Afghan passport, which give citizens visa-free access to just 38 countries.

The requirements for applying for a visa are also prohibitive. For example, a traveler from Ghana who wants to enter the EU must have €30,000 medical insurance valid for Schengen countries for reimbursement of medical expenses, assistance and repatriation in case of death or illness.

To date, very few nations have organized — mostly symbolic — airlifts for refugees from nations in great distress.

Landing on the coasts of Sicily or Calabria are many Afghan families, forced to flee after the arrival of the Taliban because they had worked as translators for Western governments and armies.

“I left Kabul because I was working with Westerners. I was working with you. With the Taliban, we were all in danger; our family could no longer stay in Afghanistan,” a man who survived the shipwreck in Cutro, where his wife and three of his children had died, told the Italian press.

Photo of Families of the migrants that lost their lives after their boat sank off Italy's southern Calabria region visit their coffins in Steccato di Cutro.

Families of the migrants that lost their lives after their boat sank off Italy's southern Calabria region visit the victims' coffins in Steccato di Cutro.

Carmelo Imbesi via Zuma

The mirage of work visas 

The other way is to come to work. In Italy, the estimated labor demand is quantified every year, and work visas are made available through the so-called "Decreto Flussi" (Flow Decree).

For 2023, there are 82,705 permits, divided between seasonal and non-seasonal workers. It's the highest number in the last 10 years, but it is not as simple as it seems.

These people must come from a list of 33 countries, including countries like Japan, South Korea or Guatemala, whose citizens rarely, if ever, seek asylum in Italy. In the end, there are only 6,000 spots available for non-seasonal workers from countries with which Italy has cooperation agreements on migration.

But the most paradoxical aspect is that, just as in many other countries like the UK, while foreigners can apply for a visa only after having signed a contract, the government doesn't help to connect European employers with foreigner workers.

In addition, since this year, the Italian government has required employers who want to hire foreigners to check with an Employment Center that no Italian worker is available for the job. After this step, it is still the employer who must inform the Immigration Desk and provide the data and paperwork of the candidate.

Italy needs at least 80,000 foreigners to fill jobs that Italians no longer want to do.

Only then can the worker apply for a visa. The whole process takes about two months. What employer hires someone they have never seen, and without even knowing when they may arrive?

The decree is a pretext to regularize some of those who have already been working for years in Italy, off the books. Last year, 200,000 applications were submitted by employers for just over 60,000 spots.

This week, applications for 2023 opened and requests exceeded the available spots within hours.

It is mere political propaganda. These policies prevent people forced to flee their country from doing so safely, and at the same time prevent European countries from bringing workers into the country legally.

According to the Moressa Foundation, Italy needs 534,000 non-seasonal salaried workers, including at least 80,000 foreigners to fill jobs that Italians no longer want to do. The latest government decree covers less than half of that.

A few nations, like Germany, have improved their laws by, for example, allowing whole families to legally migrate (and thus integrate more easily), while others prefer to continue to fight immigration without proposing solutions.

This punitive attitude does nothing to stop it, and only makes it more dangerous and difficult for people who will keep trying to enter Europe to integrate and find jobs that do not force them to live outside the law.

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

How Russia And Belarus Are Cracking Down On Exiles — And A Passport Fix To Fight Back

Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko is making it impossible for citizens who've fled the country to renew their passports, which will may make some effectively stateless. What are some possible solutions?

Photo of a customs official stamping a passport in Minsk, Belarus

Stamping passports in Minsk, Belarus

Boris Gorozovsky

Under strict new measures introduced by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, foreign embassies may no longer issue documents to Belarusians. This will make it impossible for Belarusians outside of the country to renew passports unless they return — which could lead to criminal prosecution for some who fled after the 2020 protests.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

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Russia, on the other hand, has adopted a different approach to encourage the return of its citizens abroad. After considering a 30% tax on emigrants' income, they settled on a 13% personal income tax rate.

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