Tackling Migration by Fighting Corruption?
Why Middle Eastern and Northern African migrants see no future for themselves in their home countries.
January 25, 2022
“There is no life for us here.” That’s what a 23-year-old Mohamed Rasheed told a Washington Post reporter after returning to Iraq from a grueling, failed attempt to cross the Belarus-Polish border. He was at a great loss. Why? “There are no jobs; there is no future here.”
Another man who had just disembarked from a repatriation flight from the Belarus capital of Minsk to Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, frowned and obscured his face with a scarf.
“Those words cannot leave my mouth. Who dares to tell the truth here?” he told the reporter when asked why he had left.
Widespread corruption breeds despair
The two men had returned to a country whose population has largely been excluded from sharing in the benefits of its oil wealth.
Youth unemployment hovers at about 25%. Public goods and services are poor at best. Security forces and militias fire live ammunition at protesters demanding wholesale change.
Mohammed and his fellow returnee could also have been from Lebanon, a middle-income country in which three-quarters of the population lives under the poverty line, thanks to a corrupt elite unwilling to surrender vested interests..
In fact, they could have been from any number of countries in the Middle East, North Africa and their African and Asian peripheries.
Desperate to leave
Almost half of the youth from non-Gulf countries in the Middle East and North Africa want nothing more than to leave in the absence of economic opportunities and career prospects. They are exasperated with corrupt, self-serving elites.
This is a part of the world where devastating wars have wracked Syria, Yemen and Libya.
More recently, these countries were joined by Ethiopia, while others in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel reel from jihadist violence that feeds on social and economic grievances.
Who’s to blame?
Holding human traffickers and cynical authoritarian leaders like Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko primarily responsible for the migrant crisis is swatting at symptoms.
The real problem is the instability that mars the Middle East and North Africa.
To be sure, Mr. Lukashenko and the traffickers are part of the problem. Moreover, many Middle Easterners on the Belarus-Polish border appear to be economic, not political refugees with a legal right to asylum.
The EU’s role
One could argue that the European Union is due a portion of the blame for having refused to take in the refugees on humanitarian grounds.
The jury is out on whether the refusal will serve as a warning to the many in the Middle East and North Africa contemplating ways to get to Europe by any means necessary.
The perils of myopic thinking
All of this describes the immediate aspects of a crisis. The danger is that focusing on the immediate obstructs badly needed thinking of ways to prevent or reduce the risk of future crises aggravated by unscrupulous governments.
Framing the crisis as a security rather than a political, economic and social problem downplays the need for policies and tools tackling the root causes of repeated migrant crises.
The root causes of the migrant crisis are economic mismanagement, political, economic and financial corruption, nepotism and loss of confidence in political systems and leadership.
A (shining) Central Asian example
Kyrgyzstan has the potential to emerge as rare evidence that deemphasizing the security aspects of the migration crisis does not automatically surrender leverage and influence to China and Russia.
The country is part of a Central Asian world sandwiched between Russia and China, on which the United States has seemingly turned its back with its withdrawal from Afghanistan in August.
The Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov is using his election pledges to fight corruption and offer financial rewards to whistleblowers to lure the U.S. back.
Courting the U.S. State Department
Mr. Japarov’s proposition, designed to rescue Kyrgyzstan from the clutches of Russia and China, is the central theme of a document that he has sent to the U.S. State Department.
The document outlines proposals to revive broad political, economic and civic engagement with the U.S., bolstered by anti-corruption measures and affirmation of democratic freedoms.
The Kyrgyz president is not only providing a template for U.S. reengagement with Central Asia and Afghanistan, but also offering a formula relevant to Middle East and North Africa, according to Frederick Starr, founding chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute.
A new roaring mouse
If adopted by the Biden administration, Kyrgyzstan “would become ‘The Mouse that Roared’ to cite the title of the droll 1959 British film.
Mr. Starr said that this time, the lesser power can once more “become a serious presence in the major part of Asia that lies on China’s and Russia’s doorstep.”
Confront corruption first
In contrast to Central Asia, the United States remains the dominant power in the Middle East and North Africa.
But it is a power seeking to redefine the role it wishes to play going forward in a region struggling to come to grips with an uncertain but changing U.S. approach.
Kyrgyzstan could be showing the way for both the United States and the Middle East. However, to make it work and reduce, if not stop, migration flows, the United States and its Western partners would have to prioritize confronting corrupt elites.
The latter will stop at nothing to preserve their illicitly gained privileges.
Almost half of the youth from non-Gulf countries in the Middle East and North Africa want nothing more than to leave in the absence of economic opportunities and career prospects.
Holding human traffickers and cynical authoritarian leaders like Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko primarily responsible for the migrant crisis is only swatting at symptoms.
The root causes of the migrant crisis are economic mismanagement, political and financial corruption, nepotism and loss of confidence in political systems and leadership.
To combat migration, the US and its Western partners would have to prioritize confronting corrupt elites in the Middle East and North Africa.
Corrupt elites in the Middle East and North Africa will stop at nothing to preserve their illicitly gained privileges.