Why Third-World Refugees Flee

Former Senior Fellow

One of the world's leading eco-alarmists, Lester Brown, is clanging the fire bell again—this time warning that huge numbers of Third World "environmental refugees" are fleeing the impacts of over-population, over-grazing, over-logging, and over-farming.

If that sounds a bit over-the-top, it is. After doing a critical analysis of the latest white paper issued by Brown's Earth Policy Institute, one can only point out that the EPI is attributing panicked flight to immigrants, who, in reality, are merely seeking economic opportunity.

Brown and the EPI claim that bodies of fleeing African refugees routinely wash ashore on the Mediterranean beaches of Italy, France and Spain, and that a flow of environmental refugees is fleeing Haiti because "the land is denuded and the soil is washing to the sea."

The reality is that the border-crossers are not so much ecological refugees as they are the more quick-footed citizens of failing societies. They are responding—predictably and urgently—to the message of hope, abundance, and freedom emitted by the successful societies of the First World.

Africans and Latin Americans today are suffering from the soil erosion associated with slash-and-burn farming, but they are suffering even more intensely from poverty, unemployment, government corruption, civil-war-by-machete and torturous repression from sadistic dictators.

They look across the borders at the First World and see people protected by laws and honest police; people who send their kids to schools and get jobs that pay for nice homes and TV sets.

I had neighbors who were driven from Colombia by arson and automatic weapons. They left behind the life savings they'd invested in a small, vulnerable trucking company. When they got to America, however, they both quickly got jobs—and enrolled their kids in the local community college.

Of course, environmental quality certainly is important, to both poor people and rich ones.

As it happens, however, the First World delivers not only the jobs but clean air, clean water, and well-protected wildlife preserves.

A World Bank study finds that water quality begins to improve when per capita incomes reach about $3,000; and much of the drive for eco-quality kicks in before incomes top $8,000. Markets for illegally trapped monkey brains or poached elephant tusks disappear as crop yields rise. In the Third World, all wildlife is at risk from the expansion of low-yield farming.

Opponents of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) contended the

treaty would send U.S. jobs to Mexico. Some have moved. But the alternative to creating good jobs and peaceful prosperity in Mexico is to gradually find much of Mexico moving to the United States. We're simply too attractive to ignore, even if you love your homeland as do most Mexicans. We could put the army on the border, but without live ammunition and orders to shoot, Mexican immigrants will walk past the rifle barrels.

The Latinos coming across the U.S. border today have often traveled from Mexico's job-hopeless southern regions, or from even more remote and authoritarian societies such as Honduras and Guatemala. NAFTA has helped create many Mexican jobs in the last decade, but not yet enough.

So long as the First world offers both the good jobs and the cleaner environment, people who have lost hope in their own countries will attempt to immigrate. It's another reason to applaud "nation-building" in whatever ways work.

America should be liberating farm trade, so that tropical countries can sell us their low-cost sugar and buy our low-cost wheat. We need to encourage democracy, by example, by advice, and by assistance. It will be a long-term job, but al Queda's success with the demoralized has demonstrated the necessity of this task.

To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, the world cannot long remain half-slave and half-free. If despots and terrorists can claim half of it, they most certainly will try for the rest.