Tourism, migration and terrorism


Tourism is enjoying an oddly high profile in the news these days. Everywhere from China, which is actively eclipsing the United States as number-one source market, to Spain where the recent terrorist attack in Barcelona, tourism has become a political issue. Those following the news will have noted another trend, too. It is migration which increasingly links these stories about tourism and terrorism. Migrants are moving away from terror-plagued countries like Syria and Iraq, as insurgency and terrorism establishes themselves as the top root-causes of global asylum. And they are crossing the same brittle tourist-economies they once frequented as vacationers, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey, on route for the more stable economies of Europe.
Perhaps it is no surprise, therefore, that some sensationalist press headlines now paint all migrants as ‘terrorists or tourists’. Migrants, after last year’s influx into Europe, have been described as making use of smuggling services like conventional tourist agencies and of pushing tourists out of resorts and filling up the vacancies themselves. They are also accused, following the initial alleged migrant involvement in the Paris terror attacks, of importing conflict from their home societies into the European Union.
Behind the populism, however, lies a grain of truth. Globalisation has in fact been based on the premise of trying to turn ‘terrorists’ into ‘tourists’, of transforming poor and badly-run economies into modern consumer societies by giving young workers there proper jobs. As some Western policies seem to backfire, migration, tourism and terrorism are growing in profile as well as blurring.
Western governments have committed themselves to the task of global economic convergence and modernisation. This means ushering poorer economies up the development ‘ladder’, whereby the West guides energetic workers in poor countries from marginalisation to full participation in the world economy. The slogan of ‘turning terrorists into tourists’ has emerged to represent the West’s desire to wrest young workers in poor countries from the grips of radicals who oppose liberalisation and change, and offer them the trappings of modern consumer society.
Wherever the West has promoted globalisation, radical groups have emerged to oppose it, exploiting the anxieties of young workers and offering alternative structures to attain jobs and status. But this alliance between radical groups such as Al-Shabaab or the Taliban and young workers has proven weak. Whereas the radicals wish to disrupt economic modernisation, youths want greater inclusion in it. Time and again, therefore, governments and employers have been able to break the alliance, buying off workers with better job opportunities and labour rights.
This same pattern played out in the earliest industrial economies. In 19th century Europe, governments and employers broke the “anarcho-syndicalist” alliance by offering young workers stable jobs and better labour rights, most notably the right to paid holiday, thus laying the foundations of the modern tourist industry. This formative experience gave Europe its equitable approach to economic development, and helped spawn the mantra that globalisation would ‘turn tomahawks into Toyotas, and terrorists into tourists’.
Since the collapse of Communism, Western countries have been rolling out this recipe to the rest of the world. They have pressed poor economies to open themselves up to Western trade, aid and investment with the promise that this will create jobs and spread productive technologies, as well as linking them better to the global economy, and by so doing, give young people a reason to remain at home and build democratic institutions, thus squaring the circle of how to combine economic globalisation with national state-building.
But, today, the massive rise in disorderly migration to Europe shows the difficulties with this strategy. Some headlines suggest that economic growth in Africa and Asia seems just as likely to turn terrorists into irregular migrants and tomahawks into rubber dinghies. Young workers in these poor economies still seemingly aspire to a Western lifestyle but despair of ever attaining it close to home. They are still turning their backs on terrorist and criminal organisations and pursuing the trappings of modern consumer society, but only by moving abroad and leaving groups like the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) to take hold at home.
Faced with the rise in global migration as well as terrorism, Western countries have understandably redoubled their efforts to create jobs abroad. But analysts are finding mounting evidence that raw job creation is not always the solution and can even be part of the problem. For example, the World Bank has been rowing back from its famous 1999 report which claimed that unemployment was the root of all violent extremism, and has conceded that terrorists in fact ‘recruit among the employed, in contexts where there are no effective formal unions’.
Governments risk unintended consequences when they focus on short-term job creation at the expense of long-term job quality. Take the case of Afghanistan: according to a 2015 report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), as many as 400,000 young Afghans have entered the labour market yearly, and the government has done reasonably well in providing work for them. But the new jobs are often precarious and seldom entail more than basic manual labour. They are short-term construction jobs, aimed at young men, and they have not brought stability.
Job creation policies often backfire because they create underemployment. Young workers, seeking a way out of the dead-end jobs, may turn to radical groups or consider the emigration option. There is also a possibility that workers maybe incentivised to place themselves in the hands of radicals, having calculated that violent extremism is the best way to draw investment from a worried international community.
Yet many donors have actually come to rationalise these policy misfires. Western countries, rather than critically rethinking their job creation schemes, increasingly view the growth in terrorism and disorderly migration as an intrinsic part of the development process in which economic modernisation is now conceived as an automatic trigger of violent extremism and migration. Gone, therefore, is the old idea of young workers smoothly ascending a ‘development ladder’. In its place is the idea of an unavoidable ‘development hump’, that is, a prolonged spike in disorder.
It is easy to trace where this idea came from. In the early 2000s, the United States experienced what is now considered the definitive ‘migration hump’. In 1994, it had agreed a North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Mexico in a bid to create jobs south of the border and reduce migration, but the reverse occurred, and the United States found itself reintroducing border controls and currently border fence. United States, having been assured that economic development would automatically reduce migration, naturally sought an equivalent explanation when the reverse occurred.
Yet, there was nothing automatic about the spike. The rise in Mexican migration was a result of more than just economics. NAFTA improved the standing of the United States in Mexico, making it a more attractive migration destination, and the volume of migration probably appeared greater than it was. But above all, the rise was down to poor policy design.