Northern and central Italy are not on the southern Mediterranean. But somehow thousands of refugees from Africa, Asia and the Middle East are everywhere here — as is true of much of the European Union. Some sleep on park benches. Many peddle knock-off electronic goods and counterfeit watches. Angry Italians shoo away refugee beggars from tour groups.
The Greek islands near the coast of Turkey are likewise flooded this summer with dispossessed refugees from countries such as Afghanistan and Syria. Apparently a bankrupt Greek government lacks the resources to patrol its vast coastline. Some beleaguered Greeks assume thousands of boat people and homeless refugees will eventually leave their makeshift camps and head northward to the wealthier homelands of Greece’s Northern European creditors.
A similar rush has overwhelmed America’s southern border. In the last two years, tens of thousands of Central American and Mexican citizens have sensed that the Obama administration has suspended border enforcement. Illegal entry into the United States won’t result in punishment, but instead in an array of social services unimaginable in Latin America.
So, what explains this constant rush of the world’s poor families into the West? And why aren’t China, Russia, Iran and Cuba, for example, flooded with illegal entrants?
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The human exodus to Western countries is not always explained by a lack of natural wealth elsewhere. Iraq and Venezuela, for example, are awash in oil. Mexico has lots of oil, minerals and fertile soil.
Wars may have driven scores of Afghans, North Africans and Syrians from their homelands to the West, but most of Latin America is at relative peace.
The allure of the West is certainly not due to Europeans and Americans constantly brainwashing the world about their supposedly superior culture. Just the opposite is true. American media and universities constantly harangue about the race, class and gender shortcomings of Western civilization. President Obama has retold countless Western historical sins and offered apologies for them while abroad.
Nor are Western economies currently booming and thus short of labor. The European Union faces massive debt. America never quite recovered from the Great Recession of 2008-2009 and is currently experiencing negative economic growth. Many immigrants arrive without expectation of joining the labor force.
Nor do millions of refugees hear nice things about the West from their own governments.
State media throughout Latin America routinely trash Yanqui neo-imperialism and arrogance. The Middle East is one big anti-American megaphone that constantly ridicules Western decadence as the antithesis of Islamic decorum.
So why, then, do millions risk their lives to get into America, Europe and other Western nations by hook or by crook?
The Western poor enjoy a level of state support and access to technology, health care and security that would make them relatively rich in the Third World. Even a poor foreign-born peddler in Florence, Italy, has access to clean water and is safe in a way unknown to most residents of Syria or Afghanistan.
In the West, sexism means something like the glass ceiling that makes it harder for professional women with children to match the career trajectories of their alpha corporate male counterparts. Not so in the non-West, where women are not always even guaranteed a right to vote or to divorce. At worst, gender bias is a matter of genital mutilation, arranged marriages and sexual slavery.
Gays demonstrate over the right to marry in the West; in Iran they can be stoned to death.
There may be riots in Baltimore and soccer thuggery in Britain. But that is child’s play in comparison to the medieval environment elsewhere in the world. Boko Haram has carried out massacres and other atrocities in North Africa. The Islamic State films its near-daily prehistoric beheadings. Critics of the North Korean government end up dead.
Refugees flood the West not just for economic opportunity but also for Western-style freedom. The state restricts free speech in China and in much of the Middle East.
Academics in the West may preach past U.S. sins to impressionable 18-year-old students. But refugees from Latin America assume that once they cross the border into the U.S., they will have freedoms, legal protections, compassionate social services — and respect — of the sort that is impossible at home.
Millions have decided that it is far better to be immigrants of illegal status in America than native-born citizens inside Mexico.
What, then, explains the magnetic attraction of the often-criticized West?
Add up the right to free expression, human rights, religious tolerance, constitutional government, an independent judiciary, separation of church and state, free-market economics and the protection of private property — and everyday life becomes simply far better.
There is one final irony.
The richer, freer and more technologically pampering that life becomes for self-critical native Westerners, the whinier they become — as if their West is not good because it is not perfect.
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of “The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern” You can reach him by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.