Moving abroad: Between personal choice and the global political context 

  • immigration
Published on 2023-09-20 at 10:00 by Asaël Häzaq
Political instability in a country may prevent or restrict international travel. Laws enacted by a particular state may limit or relax immigration rules. Other policies, such as environmental and economic laws, also influence the individual conscience. Can you relocate to any country? What are the obstacles that might jeopardize your moving abroad plans?

Political instability: Countries in crisis

Tunisia, Bolivia, Niger, Guatemala, Ecuador, Egypt, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Israel, India, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Morocco, Hong Kong, China, France and many other countries have been or are considered "occasionally at risk" by other countries. It might be surprising for some countries mentioned, given that they regularly welcome tourists and expatriates. France, for example, has been designated a risk zone by Canada since the recent riots at the end of July. Canada recommends "extreme caution" to those planning to visit the country. Colombia, Saudi Arabia, India and a number of other countries are in the same group.

Each country has its regularly updated list of green zones, where travel is unproblematic, and zones of caution, where "non-essential" travel is not recommended. Red zones are the most dangerous, and all forms of travel should be avoided. Countries at war and/or experiencing major political instability or cut off from the rest of the world are classified as red. It could be said that there is an international "consensus" not to travel to Afghanistan, Iraq, North Korea or, more recently, Niger, for safety reasons. But others question this "consensus". Of course, we're not talking about the professionals, diplomats, and political organizations involved in these high-risk regions. We're talking about those who have an immigration project in mind and who want to discover another country, travel, and work abroad.

Can you move to a dictatorship?

Is it moral to travel to an authoritarian state? Is it dangerous to live in a dictatorship as a foreigner? Is there a difference between traveling for a few weeks and settling down for a few years? Is it possible to live in a politically unstable country that is regularly in crisis?

These are questions that generate debate and even unease. Traveling to countries in crisis can be shocking. Why not boycott them instead? It would be an effective way to express opposition to the country's policies. Wrong, say those who have traveled to dictatorships. For them, boycotting is counterproductive because it secludes the country in crisis. On the contrary, meeting the locals would help break the isolation. Foreigners would still have to deal with restrictions (zones closed to foreigners, control of the areas in which they can move, etc.). They point out that traveling to authoritarian states does not mean one agrees with their policies.

Moving abroad: A moral responsibility

But isn't there a difference between a short trip and settling down? Again, this can be debated. For some, it's the traveler's "moral responsibility", whether they are moving for a short or long period. Others point out that many democracies are not immune to abuse, although this does not prevent heads of state from receiving each other with great pomp and circumstance. The same analysis applies to the more authoritarian states that, thanks to business, have managed to penetrate the major democratic markets. It's impossible to do without the Chinese giant. Saudi Arabia is becoming acceptable again (French President Macron received the visit of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in June). These two countries, ruled with an iron fist, are also two economic powers in search of foreign talent. Saudi Arabia, in particular, is competing with the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Should people give up on the idea of immigrating there because of their policies?

A matter of conscience

Does moral responsibility weigh heavily on expatriates? For some, yes; for others, no. Those who move abroad point out that they do not support the politics of these countries but go there to work. Others point out that there are no security problems in these countries. Rather, there are risks for journalists, opponents and all those who criticize these regimes. But as long as the profession in question does not run counter to the country's policies, there is nothing to fear except one's conscience. This is what stops foreigners who refrain from visiting a country whose politics are too far removed from their values. They don't talk about boycotts, which they consider counterproductive, only suitable for reviving nationalism. Instead, they speak of individual, open-minded reflection that evolves as their experience unfolds. They urge us to look not only at the most authoritarian regimes but also at all the other countries that are taking a political turn that they find worrying.

How a country's political climate affect immigration

While Finland is eager to welcome more international students and workers, at the same time, it is taking an assertive turn to the right. This results from the far right's entry into government following the parliamentary elections in April 2023. The new coalition government has announced a "paradigm shift". In short, a tougher immigration policy. The same applies to Sweden. Anti-immigration sentiment is on the rise in Europe. In Germany, the far right has been elected to head a local government for the first time in history. In fact, the far right is gaining ground in Europe, especially in the Netherlands, Italy, Austria, Greece, Spain, France, etc.

Could the political climate be a barrier to immigration? Sometimes, the laws that are passed restrict expatriation. The "anti-immigration" sentiment seems to be on the rise in several countries worldwide. We often forget that behind this expression, which doesn't make much sense (do these states really want to abolish immigration as a whole or to eliminate the possibility of settling in a country?), lie a lot of questions. There are also very open countries with practices that can be quite penalizing. After years of fighting to recognize the discrimination suffered by French-speaking African students who want to move to Canada, Immigration Minister Sean Fraser promised to address the problem in 2021 when he acknowledged that "systemic racism" and rejections of applications from francophone African students were on the rise, especially in Ottawa. In 2023, the Canadian government is still dragging its feet. How can one move to a country that rejects a "logically" acceptable application?

National politics and value conflicts

Sometimes, the brakes are the result of a value or moral conflict. An increasing number of travelers are sensitive to environmental issues. The climate emergency is forcing people around the world to make choices, and prospective immigrants are no exception. Should people move to countries whose environmental policies are still too superficial? In France, many environmental activists were disappointed by the failure of COP27. Ecology is a political cause that is gaining ground and can even influence moving abroad choices. Some travelers will only opt for destinations they consider to be the most ecologically advanced. Finland, with its right-wing immigration policy, is a good example of energy transition. It also has one of the most ambitious policies in this area, with a carbon neutrality target by 2035. Denmark (also convinced by far-right ideas), Costa Rica, Switzerland, Mauritius and Iceland are other states that are committed to environmental protection. China, on the other hand, is still struggling, mainly due to its dependence on coal and its economic policy (strong export of goods and services).

Ecology and economy go hand in hand, as do economy and social standards. In the United States, the absence of regulations regarding firearms keeps would-be expatriates at bay. The "American dream" comes at a price they don't want to pay. While they don't want to be labeled "paranoid," they also refuse to live in a country where walking around with a firearm is possible. Others give more consideration to men's and women's rights, specifically laws regarding women's rights.

Should you move abroad at all?

Most travelers are aware that the perfect country doesn't exist, and neither does the ideal democracy. A good environmental policy can exist alongside a more questionable economic or immigration policy. Hence the "conflict of values" and "conscience". It's more about asking ourselves what are the underlying reasons for moving abroad.