scorecardresearch Skip to main content

A three-point solution to the migrant crisis

A migrant tried to stop a child from falling in the water as they waded across a river near the Greek-Macedonian border on Monday. Alexandros Avramidis/REUTERS

In Europe and the United States, immigration is the number one political issue. Passions are high, dangerously so. The stakes are high as well. Migrants are risking their lives, and dying, to escape from violence, poverty, and joblessness. How can we reconcile the flood of migrants and the stiff backlash in the receiving societies?

I propose a three-part approach. The first is to stop the conflicts that are currently causing millions of refugees to flee their homes. The second is to promote long-term economic development in the countries migrants are fleeing. The third is to adjust global policies to enshrine the freedom to migrate while also enabling societies to limit migration to moderate and manageable rates.


Two conflict zones in particular, the Middle East and Central America, account for the recent surge of refugees to Europe and the United States, respectively. In both regions, an urgently needed change of US foreign policy could staunch this flow. Sadly, both regions have instead been destabilized by misguided US policies.

The Middle East conflicts are US wars of choice. The three largest conflicts in the region, Iraq (2003-present), Libya (2011-present), and Syria (2011-present) reflect the repeated US resort to violent “regime change,” starting with the toppling of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, and continuing with the overthrow of Libya’s Moammar Khadafy and, most recently, the attempted overthrow of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. In all three cases, the result has been open-ended conflict and the rise of violent jihadists. As a result, millions of refugees have been crossing the Mediterranean into Europe from departure points mainly in Turkey and Libya.

In Central America, as in the Middle East, lame-brained CIA schemes — such as the 1980s contra wars, the 2004 Haiti coup against Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and the 2009 Honduran coup against Manuel Zalaya — have stoked violence and created pervasive instability. In addition, the so-called US war on drugs, fought in many parts of Latin America, has fomented massive violence. An American public health crisis — the epidemic use of opiates — has been transmuted into open war south of the US border.


Both the Middle East and Central America demonstrate a compelling case for demilitarizing US foreign policy. Ending covert CIA operations in the Middle East, Central America, and Africa would immediately reduce the displacement of populations and flow of refugees. Facing the opiate epidemic for what it really is — a public health challenge caused by massive social inequalities and desperation within US communities — would stop the Latin American drug wars, save lives, and enable Central Americans to live in peace while remaining in their own countries.

Of course, even without the CIA wars of choice and the misguided war on drugs, millions of people around the world will still want to migrate to the United States and Europe in search of jobs, higher living standards, and social benefits. They will also come to escape from environmental degradation and the dislocations caused by global warming.

The correct response is to promote sustainable development in countries of large-scale out-migration. People will want to remain in their homelands if they see a viable future for their children. The good news is that sustainable development is feasible, and promoting it would be much cheaper for the United States and Europe than pursuing more failed wars, which have already cost the US trillions of dollars in the Middle East alone in the past 15 years.


Yet US foreign policy is disastrously imbalanced: US military outlays outrun development assistance by roughly 25 to 1. Or to put it another way, our total aid budget is equal to around two weeks of Pentagon spending. The reason is obvious. Washington politicians salivate over each new taxpayer-subsidized weapons sale, which brings in its wake new campaign contributions and jobs for recycled politicians. Fighting disease, illiteracy, and poverty simply doesn’t provide the D.C. political class with the same returns.

Looking ahead, the migration pressures will intensify unless the world acts to slow, and soon to stop, human-made global warming. If we fail to fulfill the climate commitments made last December in Paris, many places in the world will become less habitable and, for some, even uninhabitable. Global warming causes declining food yields in the tropics; intensifying droughts in the dry lands of North Africa and the Middle East; an expanded transmission zone of tropical diseases; more intense cyclones in Southeast Asia; and rising sea levels and flooding in coastal regions.

In addition to ending useless wars and promoting sustainable development, the third part of migration policy should be to make the world safe for diversity and for ongoing migration. Every one of us is from a migrant family. Every one of us has ancestors, if not our selves, who have been “strangers in a strange land.” The reasons for migration will continue to be powerful and diverse in the future. Our global norms and policies should respect the human right to migrate, albeit within reasonable limits.


Countries are certainly right to police their borders, but at the same time should keep an open door for moderate and manageable rates of in-migration. No country should be allowed to slam its doors shut (and none would be wise to do so, and thereby lose the benefits of diversity). And while countries may be justified in limiting some social benefits to new migrants (to keep fiscal costs manageable and to limit incentives for excessive migrant inflows), the US and other countries should ensure that migrant children receive the health care, schooling, and nutrition they need for their healthy development.

In short, migration is not about building high walls but about creating a world in which people can live securely and prosperously in their own homelands, while still enjoying the freedom to migrate for personal reasons rather than in desperation. By viewing the migration crisis in a more holistic way we will find true and lasting solutions rather than the demagogic ones now widely on offer.

Jeffrey D. Sachs is director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and author of “The Age of Sustainable Development.’’