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the long-term migration problem

June 27th, 2018 | 3 min read

By Matthew Loftus

This is hard to read, but it’s necessary to ponder. It begins with the story of Jose Matada, who climbed into the landing gear of a plane and died when he fell out as the plane was descending in 2012. Then it goes on:

But the real tragedy may be yet to come. It is estimated that, by 2050, there will be 600 million sub–Saharan African working age adults unable to find work in their own country. Many of these will move. Likely northwards, eventually. Matada had tried to build a life in five different African countries before his fateful decision to head to Europe.

Are we going to let these people rain out of the sky? Or perish in ever greater numbers in the Med? Or to prevent this happening will we build out the system we have begun to construct in Libya, in Sudan, funding dubious regimes to aggressively prevent transit; constraining, detaining and consigning migrants to their hopeless existence? What will the response of FBGs be? To shrug their shoulders and celebrate Refugee Week?

It is impractical to open the borders to all these people. But the practicalities of closing them are also unclear; the level of state controls and violence likely required would dwarf today’s already fierce immigration restrictions, and may well be unpalatable to all but the most rabidly anti–immigrant factions of the Global North democracies. Nor can we solve the problem through development; aid or trade – all evidence points to development increasing emigration, for decades; look at Mexico.

It is right and good to welcome refugees, who really have no other options. And while it is worth noting that globalization and capitalism have indeed helped millions of people to get out of desperate poverty, there are still millions left in poverty. If a family “got out” of poverty and escaped a rural life where they scratched out a living subsistence farming with three kids dying of preventable disease, that’s good. But if what they escaped to was an urban life where their kids didn’t die, but still got disabled from substandard healthcare that they used up all their savings on after working two jobs to cover rent and school fees in a polluted city… that’s less impressive.

One can argue that development vis-a-vis capitalism will tend to proceed along a set course, like many Western nations did: the power of the market will transform weak economies into strong ones over time. The problem is that history cannot repeat itself in this fashion when Western nations are skimming the capital and the best people off the top. In many of the world’s weakest economies, any benefits of globalization tend to accumulate among an elite class and those in the middle who might have some corporate power to change things just leave for greener pastures in the West. There is obviously a benefit when they send remittances home, but the broken systems they leave behind remain stagnant.

We ought not underemphasize the need to receive refugees and economic migrants: we can take in hundreds of thousands of people from other countries, particularly those fleeing violence. But we ought not overemphasize it, either: we can neither ignore the extractive legacy of the past few hundred years creating the lifestyle we enjoy now and nor abandon the people who can’t make the journey to another country. My own small, small part in this is training Family Medicine doctors in a country that has far too few to meet the needs of their population. But we need broader thought and planning to prevent a much, much larger crisis.

Matthew Loftus

Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at