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The Nativist Virus Is Spreading: A Global Roundup
Far-right populists, centrist politicians, and countries across the world are realizing that anti-immigrant sentiment is a powerful political force
Wikipedia. Creative Commons. Mstyslav Chernov
Donald Trump notoriously launched his 2016 bid for the American presidency by dialing up the invective against migrants, particularly from Mexico whom he dubbed “criminals” and “rapists.” Nor did he back down once in office. Nativism was at the core of his “Make America Great Again” slogan and he went to great lengths to propel it and motivate his base.
With the help of his anti-immigration White House aide Stephen Miller, Trump implemented a Zero Tolerance policy against border crossers, as contributor Linda Chavez recently chronicled at The UnPopulist. As part of that, he separated children from their parents as a deterrence measure. His deportation raids sowed terror in Latino communities. And he tried to scrap the protected status of Dreamers or those who grew up in America after being brought here as minors without proper authorization, among a vast array of other cruel policies.
Unfortunately, Trump is no longer an outlier. He came to power just when Europe’s migrant crisis, triggered by the wars in Syria and Yemen, was reaching its zenith. His rhetoric and agenda gave aid and succor to Europe’s far-right forces. Populist nationalist leaders and parties in Europe took inspiration from his anti-immigration slams whether it was Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni in Italy or Marine Le Pen, the failed far-right candidate for France’s prime ministership, among others. These figures are, in turn, buffeting the anti-immigration right in America. Indeed, all three have been honored guests at the CPAC, the largest conservative confab in the U.S., where their nativist ideas have received an enthusiastic hearing.
However, it is not just extremist leaders in Europe who have caught the anti-immigration virus. It has also infected centrist conservative leaders like U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, whose ancestors, ironically, hail from India.
The Daily Telegraph recently ran a pictorial representation by Jennifer Rigby and James Crisp of the fences now crisscrossing the European Union to prevent migrants from entering through eastern and southern Europe. All along Europe, they wrote, “tall walls and fences, bristling with sophisticated technology, are being erected.” Thirty-two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there are now 1,800 km of walls and fences either built or under construction on Europe’s borders. “That is the equivalent of almost 12 new Berlin Walls,” they estimate. Greece, which has been dubbed “Europe’s shield,” has now completed a high-tech fence along its Turkish border. Hungary has built fences along the border with Serbia and Croatia to block Middle Eastern migrants. Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania are also fortifying themselves to prevent entry of migrants via Belarus.
Notably, the European far-right is increasingly not just critical of people coming from outside of Europe, but also against the European Union’s policy of internal free movement.
Moreover, it is not just Western and European leaders who’ve been infected. Turkey and India have been bitten by the nativist bug as well. In short, the virus is spreading like the pandemic across the world.
Here is a non-comprehensive roundup of just what a few of the countries mentioned above and their leaders are doing:
UK’s Rishi Sunak: A Centrist Nativist
The mainstreaming of far-right policies is perhaps best represented by Prime Minister Sunak’s “Stop The Boats” law, also known as the Illegal Migration Bill. It is so radical that far-right parties such as Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland are hailing it as a “model.” Eric Zemmour, arguably France’s most Islamophobic commentator who stokes nativist fears about the “Great Replacement,” congratulated the prime minister for taking strong steps to protect the people of England, unlike what his own government is doing. More troublingly, Sunak himself has no qualms about admitting that his policies are “very aligned” with those of far-right politicians such as Italy’s Meloni, even though he is supposedly a conservative centrist.
His proposal would hand the U.K. government the power to detain migrants coming via the English Channel and hold them until they are deported back either to their home countries or to another “safe country” such as Rwanda. The migrants will be denied an asylum hearing, something that many human rights groups as well as opposition party members argue is a violation of international law and the U.K.’s commitments to migrants and refugees under 1951 UN Refugee Convention. Although courts have ruled Sunak’s overall policy legal for now, they are allowing asylum seekers to challenge Sunak on grounds that he has not considered the risks and dangers of deporting them to a country like Rwanda.
Sunak claims that he is only trying to stop illegal entry into the country, not prevent migrants fleeing desperate circumstances from seeking asylum. But given that there are no avenues for them to apply for asylum from their own countries, if they are barred from entering England, they have no way of seeking refuge. As the International Rescue Committee notes, asylum seekers undertake dangerous voyages because they have no other option.
But it’s not just asylum seekers entering via the sea whom Sunak is going after. Anyone who has entered the country illegally would be deported within 28 days and permanently refused British citizenship under his new law.
Hungary’s Viktor Orbán’s Relentless Nativism
Viktor Orbán has remained firmly anti-migrant over the course of his 13-year tenure as Hungary’s prime minister. He has continuously expressed xenophobic rhetoric, described immigration as an “invasion” and migrants themselves as “poison.” He has also declared that Hungarians do not wish to become a “mixed race.” Hungarian state media routinely express Islamophobic and shockingly racist sentiments. Zsolt Bayer, a far-right commentator and one of the founding members of Orbán’s Fidesz party, asked his guests on air last year, “This barbaric herd, which should be eliminated, raped women in Milan again. Will they stay in Europe, what do you guys think?”
Orbán’s government has put thousands of Syrian refugees in holding camps and declared a “no migrants” policy—although that seems to apply only to non-European, darker-skinned foreigners given that Hungary has admitted thousands of Ukrainian refugees. In 2018, Hungary passed what Orbán’s government dubbed the “Stop Soros” law after George Soros, the American-Hungarian businessman, intellectual, and philanthropist whom Orbán considers Public Enemy No. 1 because he defends liberal democracy. The law goes so far as to impose criminal penalties on Hungarian citizens for aiding asylum seekers. (Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is pushing a similar bill in the Sunshine State.) The law doesn’t just bar people from countries that the Hungarian government has not deemed dangerous from applying, it makes it illegal for them to do so.
The “Stop Soros” bill has put Hungary at loggerheads with the broader European Union, especially the Court of Justice, which ruled in 2021 that the bill was in conflict with EU law. Undeterred, Orbán’s government has continued to defy the ruling.
Most recently, Orbán is demanding that the EU fund his plan for the expansion of fences. Hungary began this effort along the Serbian and Croatian borders in 2015 and to this day has not stopped. The fence currently spans 320 kilometers.
Hungary has also signed agreements with Serbia and Austria for border fortifications across the Balkans. These agreements reinforce the Serbian border with Macedonia and other states both physically and through joint patrols to prevent immigrants from seeking asylum in Serbia or using it to reach Austria or Hungary. Orbán has also agreed to help Serbia organize deportations of would-be asylum seekers.
Italy’s Giorgia Meloni’s Anti-Immigrant Extremism
Italy’s political trajectory has mirrored that of Hungary’s with the steady rise of the nationalist-populist movement that culminated in the election of the far-right Brothers of Italy’s Giorgia Meloni as prime minister last year. Though she has not been in power for long, from her past rhetoric and harsh statements it is safe to conclude that she is no friend of immigrants. During her campaign, Meloni stated that Italy should “repatriate migrants and sink the boats that rescued them.” A minister in her government has been fanning fears that an “ethnic replacement” of the native population is underway.
Like Orbán, Meloni herself has endorsed far-right, racist conspiracy theories such as the Great Replacement, which alleges that elites are colluding to replace white Europeans with non-whites through immigration, and manipulating birth rates of whites while bolstering those of non-whites. Incidentally, one of the Great Replacement’s intellectual predecessors is the Kalergi Plan. The Kalergi Plan claims that Austrian-Japanese politician Richard Kalergi hatched a scheme in 1925 to mix white Europeans with non-white races. This is a highly popular theory in Italy and other parts of Europe. Among its chief propagators in America is the populist conservative group, Turning Point USA.
Meloni has also pushed a “zero-tolerance” policy towards refugees and asylum seekers and has called for a naval blockade against migrants trying to reach Italian shores by boat. However, she has yet to implement her proposal, and many argue that such an attempt is not merely unjust but also impractical as a deterrent because nothing to date has stopped migrants from attempting to enter Europe apart from the Covid-19 pandemic.
In February of 2023, Meloni’s government passed legislation requiring NGO search-and-rescue ships to go to designated ports rather than those closer by. It also required them to report any rescues they make without delay. This means they can’t rescue multiple boats in one go because they have to stop and report every incident. Captains of rescue boats face fines of up to 50,000 euros if they fail to comply.
A few weeks ago, Meloni’s government declared a six-month “state of emergency” to deal with incoming migrants, something Italy refrained from doing even at the height of the Syrian refugee crisis. This will allow the government to pass laws and act without going through parliament. Meloni is planning to use her powers to divert funding to build more “reception centers”—read holding camps—for migrants reaching Italy’s shores. Migrant activists and human rights groups fear that the government will also use the emergency declaration to obstruct their aid efforts.
Sadly, as Italian immigration expert Luigi Achilli points out, Meloni’s efforts to thwart rescue efforts for migrants in distress is not a radical departure from what other European countries are doing. “Meloni’s government is pushing the dominant approach on migration to an extreme,” he notes.
Turkey’s Recep Erdoğan’s About Face
It isn’t just European countries that are turning against Syrian refugees. These refugees have become pawns in the upcoming political contest between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his chief opponent Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. Until recently, Erdoğan’s government welcomed Syrian refugees and asylum seekers, strongly rejecting calls for them to be deported.
However, as enmity towards Syrians rose in Erdoğan’s nationalist and populist voter base, he did an about face. He is promising to send a million refugees back to areas of Syria that Turkey’s military has secured and and declared safe. Erdoğan claims that some 550,000 refugees have already been returned to these “safe” regions. He emphasizes that he is relying on a system of “voluntary returns”. This is not altogether false—some Syrians do in fact want to return home given the prejudice and economic deprivation they face in Turkey.
A significant factor in Erdoğan’s shift has been Kılıçdaroğlu’s surprising anti-Syrian sentiments. Kılıçdaroğlu is running as a liberal democrat who wants to put an end to Erdogan’s oppressive, Islamist rule. But in an attempt to capture some of Erdoğan’s nationalist voting bloc as well as capitalize on the growing anti-migrant feelings among the Turkish public, Kılıçdaroğlu has advocated sending Syrian refugees back within two years.
Turkey's continuing economic crisis, rampant inflation, and the challenge of rebuilding in the wake of the recent devastating earthquakes have all contributed to the growing public animus against immigrants and refugees. Turkey should know better given that its own immigrants face hostility and demonization in Europe. But there seems to be a universal human tendency to scapegoat the most vulnerable outgroups for a nation’s problems. So it is hardly surprising that Turkey is succumbing.
India’s Narendra Modi: Donald Trump’s Best Student
Perhaps the greatest student of Donald Trump’s nativist policies has been Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. India has had a relatively porous border since 1947 when the British drew the current boundaries before ending their rule and exiting the region. Migrants from Nepal, Bangladesh, and other neighboring countries have gone back and forth between their jobs in India and families back home more or less unencumbered since that time. The northwest region of India has had to deal with its share of refugees from Bangladesh when that country has faced political turmoil, and their presence has generated tensions with the native population.
However, anti-immigration, nativist sentiment was largely local and not a big part of India’s national politics. Until Modi, a Hindu nationalist, came along.
Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) upped its rhetoric against Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh and elsewhere in the run up to his 2019 re-election campaign. Amit Shah, his political advisor and India’s Home Minister, called Bangladeshi immigrants “termites” in 2018. Watching the political power of the illegal immigration issue in America, the BJP made getting rid of the undocumented part of its campaign rhetoric and agenda.
After getting re-elected, Modi wasted no time in turbocharging the drive for a National Register of Citizens that required all of India’s 1.3 billion-plus people to prove that they were citizens or be considered illegal. But this is an impossible task for the vast majority of Indians—including the dominant Hindu population—who have no birth certificates or other documentation to prove their ancestry. So Modi passed the Citizenship Amendment Act that handed automatic citizenship to all Hindu, Buddhist, Parsee, and Christian migrants from neighboring countries—everyone, that is, except for Muslims. Many Indian Muslims with ancestors going back generations are being transformed into stateless, undocumented immigrants in their own country.
For Modi, the issue of undocumented people is a Trojan horse to advance his religious-cleansing, Hindu-nationalist agenda. The CAA triggered massive protests by students and Muslim women in 2020. But Modi used the pretext of the pandemic to crush them.
Sadly, his tactics are shocking but not surprising in today’s increasingly tribal and intolerant world.