“No one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark.”
Immigration is perhaps the defining political issue of the Trump era. The political left, right, and center, each offer their own vision for the proper treatment of those who arrive on American borders in search of a better life. However, as Poet Warsan Shire’s words remind us, migration does not begin at the border, it begins in homes and communities that are rarely abandoned without necessity.
Though the dynamics of migration are complex, at least one of Shire’s sharks has a name: neoliberal globalization. Since the era of Reagan and Thatcher, powerful states and the wealthy interests that they represent have built a global economic order that places the market above all else. This has resulted in the systematic uprooting of the poor, the working class, and the subaltern of the Global South. Acting through trade deals and international financial institutions, neoliberal globalization causes displacement by creating conditions of poverty, imposing corporate agricultural policies, and fueling environmental destruction. While progressives fight for the rights of those displaced by this unjust system, they must also struggle to replace it.
The neoliberal order was designed to enrich the few at the expense of the many.
The neoliberal order was designed to enrich the few at the expense of the many. Institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank force Southern nations to adopt austerity, privatization, and unfettered capital mobility. Trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) empowercorporations, undermine labor, and constrict domestic policy space. Usurious creditors trap countries in cycles of debt and poverty, only to use the power of their holdings to reshape markets for further exploitation.
These policies have birthed untold poverty, inequality, and destitution, the conditions behind much migration. So-called liberalization launched a wave of financial crises across Asia and the “lost decade” for Sub-Saharan Africa. In the first twenty years under NAFTA, Mexico’s economic growth ranked 18th of 20 Latin American countries, while real wages actually declined. On aggregate, the United States and Canada have seen modest economic benefits, but as in Mexico, most of these have gone to the top. As anthropologist Jason Hickel points out, “only 5% of all new income from global growth trickles down to the poorest 60%.”
On top of these broader economic conditions, neoliberal globalization has forced on Southern countries an agricultural model that systematically removes indigenous, peasant, and smallholder farmers from their land to make way for large-scale corporate agriculture. The World Bank’s Enabling the Business of Agriculture project, for example, encourages the conditioning of aid on corporate access to land. While other development programs claim to support smallholders, they are often little more than Band-Aids for systemic problems caused by the same actors. Trade deals like NAFTA prohibit protections for local farmers while freeing subsidized American corporations to flood Southern markets with artificially cheap commodities, makings mall-scale farming virtually impossible.
Those who escape agricultural displacement often instead find the environments on which they depend made uninhabitable. Trade deals like NAFTA allow corporations and capital to cross borders freely, forcing countries to compete to attract investment by slashing environmental regulations. Describing the experience of post-NAFTA Mexico, activist David Bacon relays the story of one farmer whose village became so polluted by American factory farms that “his children would wake up [at night] and vomit from the smell.”
Entire towns are commonly uprooted so that Northern companies, funded by development banks, can clear forests, strip mine mountains, and flood valleys. In less than ten years, an estimated 3.3 million people were physically or economically displaced by World Bank-funded projects. The corporations responsible rarely face consequences because they have, for decades, lobbied against internationally binding human rights laws in favor of anemic voluntary Corporate Social Responsibility guidelines. Above all else, neoliberal globalization has fueled a changing climate that will, without action, spawn a refugee crisis orders of magnitude beyond what the world has ever seen.
The migration crisis is, more accurately, a crisis of displacement. It is the product of a model of globalization that prioritizes the profits of a few over the lives of the many. To solve it requires more than just humane border policy; it requires an alternative globalization.
An alternative system of trade would build global protections for workers and the environment while limiting the power of capital. A new agricultural policy would encourage, not deter, protections for peasants and indigenous communities. Democratizing international financial institutions like the World Bank would empower those most impacted by their policies. A binding global treaty would hold transnational corporations accountable for their human rights violations and a New Bretton Woods and Global Green New Deal would make major strides against global inequality and climate change. Though such systemic change will not come easily, it is necessary to address displacement at its root.