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Immigration Kills

Migrants are a thorn in any government's side, but authoritarian regimes, in particular, fear nomads.
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The Iron Curtain in Europe was designed as a means of preventing emigration. (PHOTO: LADIN/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

The Iron Curtain in Europe was designed as a means of preventing emigration. (PHOTO: LADIN/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

"Nazi propagandists claimed that gipsies and Jews — peoples with wandering in their genes — could find no place in a stable Reich," writes Bruce Chatwin in The Songlines. A nation fears nomads. All authoritarians, beware of the migrant:

Vietnam is one of the few countries in the world whose citizens must live where they’re registered or ask the government’s permission to relocate. This ho khau system borrows heavily from China’s hukou, which was developed in the years after the Communists took power in 1949. Similarly, starting in the 1950s the Communist rulers in Vietnam required people to list members of their households in their ho khau booklets, including age, occupation and ethnic group, in order to track people’s movements.

As old as all history, a tension exists between the mobile and the stuck. Those who move should die. Place über alles. Why do dictators fear cities?

Too many people still hold the vestigial belief that the “real” citizens of poor countries are peasants. Turkish-American sociologist Zeynep Tuekci complained this week that she keeps “coming across pundits referring to ‘rural’ Turkey as real Turkey – as in ‘what about rural Turkey?’” But 70 per cent of Turkey is urban, she noted. “There are many cleavages in Turkey but if you are going to divide Turkey into significant groups, ‘rural’ is not top of your list.”

For democracies such as Brazil and Turkey, that means foment. But it threatens the existence of dictatorships. American political scientist Jeremy Wallace has just published an important analysis of the role of cities and urban-financing policy in “authoritarian regime survival” – that is, he asks whether crowded mega-cities are useful props or threatening menaces to dictatorships. After analyzing the fates of scores of non-democratic regimes around the world between the Second World War and the present, he finds that these cities are the main threat to the regimes’ survival.

Regimes often feel threatened by their urban residents, Mr. Wallace concludes, and they respond by trying to buy off the disgruntled urban elites. In the Middle East, this was done explicitly, by creating a coddled, regime-backing nationalist middle class. In South America and Asia, it was often done through tax and welfare policies that favoured city over countryside.

I'll see your "vestigial" geographic stereotype and raise you a Wandering Jew. Real citizens of any country are Volks who spring from the soil and require Lebensraum. Wallace should read a bit of Chatwin.

Migrants, not urbanites, are a thorn in any government's side. Even today, tracking the flows of people is difficult. Do you belong here? In poorer countries, the rural stream into the urban. In wealthy countries, the rural stream into the urban, albeit on an international scale. The churn of humanity causes unease, disease. Immigration kills.

Without migration, propaganda rules. There is no Arab Spring. Movers smuggle knowledge, from rural to urban and back. The nomad goes where Twitter cannot.