- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 11, 2000

ANTWERP, Belgium.This major Belgian port is a haven for illegal migrants waiting to make their final dash to asylum or anonymity in England. Late last month 60 Chinese tried it, tucked into a refrigerator truck half full of tomatoes. By the time the ferry reached Dover, 58 had smothered to death. This sort of thing happens so often, though usually the numbers in an individual incident are smaller, we hardly notice any more. Something like 150 Mexicans have died this year trying to reach the United States and almost as many Moroccans have drowned this year trying to reach Spain across the turbulent Strait of Gibraltar.

Some of these migrants are on their own, but many are in the hands of crime syndicates that smuggle people across borders and earn an estimated $3 billion a year doing so. The U.N. Office of Drug Control and Crime Prevention recently estimated that as many as 200 million people including tens of millions of women and children may now be in the hands of criminals like the "Snakeheads" who charged up to $25,000 a head to take the sixty Chinese from China to England.

The migration problem has drawn more attention than usual in recent weeks because of tragedy of the Chinese and the just-concluded ordeal of Elian Gonzalez, the rafter boy from Cuba, which was not a syndicate affair. These high profile incidents have drawn attention to the migrating and trafficking of an estimated 70 million persons annually. The result should be a serious re-evaluation of immigration policy in the United States and the other 25 or so developed countries of the world where migrants usually want to go.

The world's migrants today number more than the population of Russia. Almost all have moved from south to north or east to west out of the roughly 175 so-called developing countries of the world. That is, Latin Americans have come to the States while North Africans have headed for Western Europe. Filipinos have gone to Japan and Ireland while Chinese have gone wherever they can get in.

In centuries past, migration was not the "problem" it has become today and will be in this new century. The positive can be emphasized and the negative reduced if all parties will begin by recognizing two basic facts and moving on from there. First, as Migrant News editor Philip Martin has noted, most of these migrants would really rather stay home. Not unlike migrants to the United States over the centuries, they are looking for physical or economic security for themselves and their families at home. Tragedies like the one discovered in Dover will not decrease the numbers of migrants from countries where "development" is often slow, at best, or mainly for the elites. The chances of getting a job in a foreign land which will enable them to send money home are too good to be rejected.

Second, the developed world needs migrants. Birthrates are declining and populations aging. Migrants will do menial work residents for developed countries don't want to do, and they will pay taxes to support the social security and other government operations of their adopted work-land. The rub is that most developed countries don't want to acknowledge this need because they are afraid of and resent the racial diversification of their culture. Thus they stick their heads in the sand by making it very difficult for unskilled and often even skilled migrants to legally enter in their countries.

Of course, this ostrich attitude doesn't change the facts. Since people are needed, and migration is illegal, peddlers in people step in to supply the demand. These are the Chinese "Snakeheads" or their local variants in almost every other country. Serious problems with this procedure are the indebtedness the migrants have to their smugglers and the bad treatment they often receive from the local labor market because they are illegal.

The only real control on migration is reforming the 175 countries so they can take care of their own people. There are innumerable political, economic and cultural obstacles to that happening in most, never mind all, of the 175 supposedly developing countries. The developed world can help in this, but the essential changes must come within the individual countries themselves. This foreign support can range from debt relief for nations to "microcredits" for poor individuals and their families. A model for the latter was developed in Bangladesh as Grameen loans of several hundred dollars to millions of the poor without collateral. Some 225 Grameen replication programs have been set up in dozens of countries over the past decade.

An even more fundamental but also more difficult approach has been launched by Hernando de Soto, the founder and director of Peru's Institute for Liberty and Democracy. Mr. de Soto has spent many years conducting research and implementing practical property reform programs in Peru, Haiti, Egypt and the Philippines. Mr. de Soto's new book, due out from Basic Books in September, is called "The Mystery of Capital." In it he argues that for complicated historical reasons the assets of the poor in the developing world are about $3 trillion, but they are "dead." He has pilot programs in several countries integrating this "dead" capital into national systems of property so it can become live capital capable of producing surplus value in an expanded market. As he argues, these reforms will only succeed if they have intelligent, firm and sustained support from top national leaders. It is predictable that many or even most countries may never shake the inertia of centuries and vested interests of shortsighted elites.

So, the developed nations must deal with the challenge day by day, first by acknowledging their need for legal migrant labor and then by reforming immigration laws accordingly. These changes should be coordinated bilaterally with individual developing nations and implemented multilaterally to reduce the crime syndicate trafficking element. The developed world will never completely control migration any more than man can tame the notoriously turbulent North Sea the Dover-bound ferry crossed with its ill-fated Chinese cargo.

But just as lighthouses made the North Sea much more safely navigable a couple of centuries ago, so intelligent reforms today can help the world better manage the migrating millions. Reforms will also provide cheap but invaluable support for those "developing" nations that want to help themselves cope with the needs of their people.

William Ratliff is a senior research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

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