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Political leaders who want to act humanely towards asylum-seekers and other migrants now face a moral dilemma. Either they pursue border control that is strict enough to undercut public support for far-right parties, or they risk allowing those parties to gain more power – and challenge the West’s most fundamental values.

The most heart-rending media story of the past month featured children crying after being separated from their parents at the border between the United States and Mexico. US President Donald Trump, after initially defending the separations, yielded to public pressure and signed an executive order ending it. In Europe, too, immigrants made headlines as the ship Aquarius, carrying 629 rescued would-be immigrants, was turned away by Italy’s new populist government, as well as by Malta. That formed the background to a European Union meeting in Brussels, which hammered out a compromise on how to protect Europe’s borders and screen arriving migrants.
Less than three years ago, when more than 100,000 asylum seekers were arriving at the EU’s borders every month, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said: “The fundamental right to asylum for the politically persecuted knows no upper limit.” She added that this applies also to “refugees who come to us from the hell of a civil war.”
Merkel followed those words with action. In 2015, Germany registered 890,000 asylum seekers, and over the 18-month period from September 1 of that year, accepted more than 600,000 applications for asylum. To integrate so many newcomers from very different cultural backgrounds was obviously going to be a difficult task, but Merkel famously proclaimed, “Wir schaffen das” (We can do it). No act by any German leader, not even Willy Brandt’s spontaneous decision in 1970 to kneel before a memorial to the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, has more decisively distanced Germany from its racist past.
Last month, on the day before the Brussels meeting, Merkel spoke very differently, telling the German parliament that Europe faces many challenges, “but that of migration could become one that determines the fate of the European Union.”
The reasons for this shift in emphasis are obvious. Less than two months after Merkel championed the unlimited right to asylum, Poland’s voters put the anti-immigrant Law and Justice party in power. The following year, British voters chose to leave the EU, and Trump was elected.
The trend continued in 2017. Austria’s snap election in May led to a coalition government that includes the far-right Freedom Party. In September, Germany’s federal election resulted in an eight-point swing against Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, and the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany, which had never before won a seat in the Bundestag, became the country’s third-largest party.
This year, Italy’s general election in March led to a coalition government in which the far-right League party’s Matteo Salvini – who, as interior minister, refused safe harbor to the Aquarius – appears to be the dominant figure. Finally, and most predictably of all these results, Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s authoritarian anti-immigrant prime minister, was returned to office, retaining his Fidesz party’s control – in coalition with the Christian Democratic People’s Party – of a two-thirds parliamentary majority.
Migration played a role – possibly a decisive role – in every one of these results. That is tragic, not just for would-be immigrants, but for the world. We all respond to the cries of the children separated from their parents by Trump’s immigration policies. We cannot yet hear the cries of the children who will go to bed hungry because rich countries’ failure to tackle climate change has dried up the rains needed for their parents to grow the crops to feed them.
Neither those children nor their parents will be able to claim asylum in the countries responsible for climate change. The UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defines refugees as those unable or unwilling to return to their country because of a well-founded fear of persecution on the grounds of “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” There is no requirement to take economic refugees, and those who wrote the Convention did not think about climate-change refugees.
It is too early to tell how much harm governments that are hostile to immigrants – and skeptical about climate change, the EU, and the United Nations – will eventually cause. But we can already see, in the trade wars that the Trump administration has initiated, the effects of increased nationalism. The populist governments in Hungary and Poland are changing their countries’ constitutions in ways that undermine democracy. Trump will not be able to amend the US Constitution, but his appointments to the Supreme Court will change the way it is interpreted, which may amount to the same thing.
The number of immigrants arriving in Europe without permission has now fallen back to pre-2015 levels, so we might hope for a return to pre-2015 politics, too. But, in politics, perception is everything, and the recent Hungarian and Italian elections suggest that the decline in immigrant numbers has not yet had any impact.
Political leaders who want to act humanely toward asylum seekers and other aspiring immigrants now face an awful moral dilemma. Either they go far enough toward stricter border control to undercut public support for far-right parties, or they risk losing not only that battle, but all the other values threatened by anti-immigration governments as well. In the context of Europe’s turbulent last three years, Merkel’s 2015 statement exemplifies both the inspirational value of proclaiming rights to be inviolable, and why, in the last resort, rights must have a limit.

Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, Laureate Professor in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne, and founder of the non-profit organization The Life You Can Save. His books include Animal Liberation, Practical Ethics, The Ethics of What We Eat (with Jim Mason), Rethinking Life and Death, The Point of View of the Universe, co-authored with Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek, The Most Good You Can Do, Famine, Affluence, and Morality, One World Now, Ethics in the Real World, and Utilitarianism: A Very Short Introduction, also with Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek. In 2013, he was named the world’s third “most influential contemporary thinker” by the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute.