I have been an emigrant three times in my life. The first was emigration, alone, from Australia to France, in 1964. The second was emigration, with my pregnant wife, from France to the U.S. in 1968. The third was emigration from the U.S., with my wife and three children, back to France. The first of these emigrations was necessary : I had no choice; I was sent by my religious superiors to do a doctorate in Theology in Paris. This emigration to France was also attractive because no other Catholic university, at the time, offered the same cutting-edge excellence in the teaching of Pastoral Theology. The second emigration was also necessary, because it was only in the States that an ex-priest could find employment as a lay theologian directing Religious Education programs and teaching in a Catholic university. The third was also necessary because my wife insisted on “going home”. But it came at a price : forcing our children, aged 9, 7 and 5, to abandon their friends, their pets, their environment and their native language, obliging them to face the challenge of definitive integration into a strange land and culture – to say nothing of the challenges I personally faced, finding a job and supporting my indigent immigrant family.
People emigrate because they have to – to escape famine, dictatorship, war and misery – or because they see another country as offering attractive opportunities to lead a better, safer, more satisfying life. Today the news is full of stories about illegal immigration, notably from Africa, by people prepared to risk their lives and the lives of their children on fragile inflateable boats crossing the Mediterranean. Their tragic stories are mirrored in those of illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America, who at the last northern border face the quasi-certainty of incarceration and separation from their children. Laudable efforts are being made to improve the plights of all these emigrants, forced to flee the inhuman conditions of life in their native country. But these bandaid measures cannot provide an effective, lasting solution to the challenge of unwanted immigration – seen by many as a threat. Attacking the causes, the raison d’être, of EMIGRATION is the only long-term solution possible.
What if Africa and Central America became so attractive as places to live, work and prosper, that Europe and the U.S. would no longer tempt their citizens to emigrate ? China is investing massively in the African continent, predicted to have a population of 2.5 billion in 2050, transforming and modernizing it as it consolidates its own prosperity and its own project of becoming the top future world superpower. It is in their own interest that Europe and the U.S. should also invest heavily in the development of the countries so many people are longing to leave, taking enormous risks to seek a better life elsewhere by emigration. Only when they find reasons for staying put will the current crisis disappear. A utopian vision, no doubt. But unless we make emigration unnecessary and unattractive, desperate people will continue to seek to immigrate to more developed and prosperous countries like ours – and we will continue to try to turn them away at our borders. Our myopia, if not transformed into a long-range vision and strategy, will create a dystopia for both the have-nots and the haves, not only for the countries of origin but for the target-countries as well.
The American Dream, for millions of Americans, has never been more than a pipe-dream, a reality reserved for the relatively lucky few. Europe never was a Utopia, except in the eyes of impoverished Africans and Middle Eastern refugees from terrorism. Unless a United Nations Global Initiative, an international ambitious long-term plan is implemented- to make potential emigrants’ own countries a home they would not want to leave – within three generations, both the U.S. and Europe risk becoming places from which we ourselves would want to emigrate. But there will be no place to go.
It is highly unlikely that anything significant will be done, in the foreseeable future, to change the status quo. Prosperous countries will harden their fortress mentality (like Australia’s) and brave would-be immigrants from indigent ones will continue to attempt to penetrate our borders. We can only hope that we will recognize our myopia before it is too late.