Sometimes I choose a newsletter topic because it’s in the headlines. Sometimes it’s to point out a phenomenon that is shaping politics around the world, in ways that often go unnoticed, and to explain how to recognize its fingerprints on news events that recur reliably month after month.
Today’s subject is both.
The headline came Thursday, when the British government announced a plan to start sending some asylum-seekers to Rwanda. How far Britain’s program will go in practice, and whether it can survive a legal challenge, remain open questions. But if put in place, evidence suggests that the consequences for those deported would be dire: A similar Israeli program deported thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers to Rwanda between 2014 and 2017, leaving them destitute and vulnerable to exploitation.
“There is a very efficient network of smugglers and traffickers there, and they already knew that people from Israel were coming, and would have money on them,” said Lior Birger, a researcher at Tel-Aviv University and a co-author of a study of refugees sent to Rwanda from Israel. “They would rob them, or threaten them that if they don’t pay they would harm them.” Most deportees ended up fleeing to Europe to seek asylum there, in part because they feared for their safety in Rwanda.
But implemented or not, the British plan is also an example of a global political phenomenon that’s not really about asylum, or even migration. Rather, it’s rooted in a quirk of political psychology that, when cannily exploited by politicians, has affected not only the lives of thousands of refugees and migrants, but also shaped right-wing politics and fueled political disruption around the world.
It comes down to two words: control and salience.
Fear of losing control
Years ago, when I first started covering right-wing populism, immigration and refugee crises, I noticed something that initially seemed very confusing. For a large portion of the public in a lot of the countries I’ve written about, “border crossings” are a terrifying phenomenon, even if the absolute numbers involved are very small. But to many of those people, “immigration,” even if it involves far more people, and even if many of them are still refugees and economic migrants, is a totally different and far less threatening concept.
In fact, people crossing borders and requesting asylum is how refugee protection is supposed to work: There is no system of prior authorization that licenses people to flee persecution, or directs them to a specific country of refuge. But to a lot of the people I’ve spoken with over the years, that didn’t matter. All they saw was people crossing the border without permission and a government that seemed unable or unwilling to impose control.
And political psychology research shows that feelings of lost control make people more likely to want to identify with powerful groups in order to protect themselves. An us-versus-them worldview is divisive but simple — join “us” to be safe from “them.”
That can be a potent tool for politicians who traffic in us-versus-them populism, as shown by the frequency with which the idea of “taking back control” over immigration and borders comes up in political sloganeering. But to wield it, they need another element: salience.
When something is salient, in political science terms, it means that people are paying attention to it. The more salient an issue is to a particular person, the more likely the person is to vote or make other decisions based on it. So if us-versus-them populists want to harness panic over uncontrolled borders, they first need to draw the public’s attention to the issue for long enough to get them worried about it.
Sometimes that comes easily. When more than 900,000 refugees from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries arrived in Europe in 2015, the scale of the crisis naturally drew headlines, and far-right parties like the AfD in Germany gained votes by promising to regain control over borders.
But sometimes politicians’ own actions can increase salience. “Politicians can seize on moments of opportunity that are not of crisis proportions to stoke fear, and fear is a very powerful tool for politicians in mobilizing their domestic constituencies,” said Stephanie Schwartz, a University of Southern California political scientist who studies the politics of forced migration.
Consider the Tampa Affair. In August 2001, a Norwegian freighter called the Tampa rescued 433 asylum-seekers, many of them women and young children, from a disintegrating boat in the Indian Ocean. Running low on supplies because the boat was intended to support only a crew of 27, the Tampa’s captain sought to bring those rescued to Christmas Island, a remote Australian territory. Had the government agreed, the matter would probably have been a minor news story at most — part of an ongoing but relatively low-key debate about migrants arriving by boat.
But instead, then-Prime Minister John Howard of Australia dispatched special forces troops to board the boat and forcibly prevent it from entering Australian waters. The move was controversial, but the ensuing debate and media coverage allowed Howard to claim that Australia’s borders were dangerously uncontrolled.
“We decide who comes into this country and the circumstances in which they come,” Howard said in defense of his decision to prevent the refugees from landing. A few weeks later, the Sept. 11 attacks heightened many Australians’ sense of outside threat. It hardly mattered that only a few thousand people in total arrived by boat that year, making up less than 1% of the total net migration to Australia in 2001.
“The large numbers of unauthorized border crossings were a construct,” Schwartz said. “Politicians do not necessarily make their platforms based on some external public opinion that exists on its own. People’s views on having refugees in their community are shaped by the media, shaped by what politicians say.”
Howard was re-elected that November.
Politicians around the world have followed that playbook. In the United States, for instance, Donald Trump’s racist claim that rapists and criminals were sneaking across the southern border helped him clinch the 2016 presidential election.
Bringing the Brexit days back
Which brings us to Britain’s newly announced plan to send migrants to Rwanda.
When Prime Minister Boris Johnson was campaigning for Britain to leave the European Union in the 2016 Brexit referendum, making immigration control salient was easy. The 2015 refugee surge was still fresh in the public’s mind. The EU’s freedom of movement was easy to portray as a loss of control over Britain’s borders. And the referendum campaign saturated media coverage for months.
So Johnson had a built-in audience for his message that Britain needed to “take back control,” and was able to portray Brexit — and later his own premiership — as the way to make that happen.
But today, other issues crowd the public agenda. A February Ipsos poll found that the public was most concerned with the economy and the pandemic. The war in Ukraine now dominates headlines most days. And last week police fined Johnson for attending a party during Britain’s COVID-19 lockdown, in violation of the rules his own government had made — the latest episode in the unfolding “Partygate” scandal that has led many to call for his resignation.
“Immigration has come to the number 11 issue for the British public, whereas it was the one, two or three issue when we were having the Brexit referendum. It’s fallen a lot,” said Sunder Katwala, the director of British Future, a think tank focused on immigration and identity issues. “They’re trying to bring it back as an issue when it’s actually quite low.”
I can’t speculate on the inner motivations of the government officials responsible for the Rwanda plan. But announcing it last week, immediately after news of Johnson’s COVID-19 fine broke, has certainly drawn attention to the government’s hard-line immigration policies.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean it will prove effective. Grabbing attention for a few days isn’t necessarily the same as convincing the public that there is a genuine border crisis. Or that this government has the right solution.
“There’s a case that they’re making a mistake,” Katwala said. “They’ve always seen talking tough on immigration as potentially an advantage for them over their opponents, but they have a very weak reputation at the moment.”
[This article originally appeared in The New York Times.]