The immigration problem

Europeans cannot take pride in their continent if all they seek to do is raise barriers. A new international debate must take place. [Reposted from openDemocracy, May 2003]

Tom Bentley
28 September 2015
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People movement is part of human nature. For as long as we have known, the drive to explore new surroundings, flee from threat and improve our circumstances has produced flows of migration.

The growth of settled nation states with strongly controlled borders over the last two centuries has obscured this reality. But the growth of mobility brought by newer forms of globalisation is bringing human mobility back into the spotlight.

Around 150 million people in the world live outside the country in which they were born. Most of this human movement occurs within regions and in developing countries. In Europe, we tend to pay little attention to population movement in other parts of the world, other than brief bursts of attention in our dominant media outlets, usually during famine or war.

Within Europe, though, how we should understand and handle apparently growing numbers of people seeking to enter our space is becoming an explosive question.

On the one hand, a new consensus began to emerge in the late 1990s that perhaps our ageing societies needed a fresh influx of people – boosting our birth rates, our entrepreneurial energies and the service industries.

On the other hand, western Europeans appear to have become more anxious – about national identity, ‘social cohesion’, crime and quality of life. Somehow, immigrants, usually those with dark skin, have become directly implicated in our public imagination with many different aspects of ‘the way things are changing’. Immigration has become a lightning rod for a broader sense of uncertainty about how peace, prosperity and the social contract of the post-war era translate into the 21st century.

Thus, in many European countries, the politics of race and immigration has become central to the outcome of national elections. In many, it has been the leading issue for new political movements and ‘challenger’ candidates, from Jorg Haider in Austria to Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands to Anders Fogh Rasmussen in Denmark, whose centre-right administration relies on the minority votes of an explicitly anti-immigrant party. Perhaps the most dramatic illustration was Jean Marie Le Pen’s victory over Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin in the first round of the French presidential race.

So far, the occasional earthquakes have not produced fundamentally different political landscapes. But they have shown how politics is becoming more volatile, as citizens disengage from traditional parties and struggle to make sense of a swirling set of global issues. As time goes on, the balancing act for governments becomes ever more precarious. David Blunkett, the British Home Secretary, last week described society as being ‘like a coiled spring’, expressing his concern that anger and hostility could too easily translate into violence and vigilantism. Control of migrant inflows and their ‘integration’ into society has become a litmus test for those concerned about the erosion of national sovereignty and identity.

The interplay of security and illegality


These issues would have arisen anyway, but since 11 September 2001 the debate has taken on a more urgent and dangerous tone. Governments are presented with a new challenge; how to make their societies secure from threats carried through the networks of communication and exchange on which the global economy rests. Terror, mass destruction and religious or racial hatred can emerge from half-hidden networks of people and organisations that are embedded on quite a small scale within our increasingly complex societies, especially large cities. Widespread realisation of this threat means that, as the British journalist John Lloyd recently put it, ‘the range of feelings we had towards those from poorer regions…who came to live here…is now narrowing and congealing into a fear, which will turn to anger.’

Since the murder of the British policeman Steven Oake, alleged to have been killed by an Algerian terrorist who was rejected as an asylum seeker but not removed from the UK, the temperature of the British debate has gone up several notches. Some newspapers are openly calling for the Geneva Convention of 1951 on refugees to be scrapped. Others are demanding that our borders effectively be sealed, for politicians to prove that they can be tough.

And this is the core of the real problem. The debate is usually presented as a choice between liberal, cosmopolitan or humanitarian instincts and no-nonsense toughness or nationalism. People argue for or against border controls, or ‘fortress Europe’, as if we could make the choice to turn off the flow of people as if it were a tap. But the reality we have to face is that any such attempt to ‘control’ migration comprehensively may be impossible.

Politicians in several countries are making enormous efforts to show that borders can be controlled with greater precision; that legal regimes can make the right choices between people trying to get in, deciding their status and removing those who do not qualify. Of course, if we spend more money and effort on policing borders, buy new technology and manage immigration procedures more proactively, we can have some impact on who comes, who stays, and who goes. But fundamentally, a more open world in which goods, ideas and money move more freely across borders will bring with it greater movement of people as well. In a European Union with hugely expanding physical borders, and a time of increasing trade flows, we should avoid pretending that we will be able to control who comes and goes with the accuracy now being demanded.

Meanwhile, the illegal movement of people has become one of the most lucrative businesses for international criminal networks. In other words, the human desire for mobility, and the inability of our existing systems to cope with it, is fuelling the organisations that help move drugs, forgeries, weapons and slavery around the world, and undermine the rule of law and the reach of democratic governments. It may be a perverse outcome that our attempts to tighten control in order to improve security could be strengthening the illegal networks that make security more difficult, but we have to confront the possibility.

We also have to debate the costs to society of greater control; whether a hardening of policies towards incomers contributes to a hardening of attitudes towards others, and what else needs to be done to encourage mutual understanding and respect for the diversity that already exists. Europeans cannot take pride in their open society, or hope to have much influence in the wider world, if the only signal they send to it is through raising the barricades.

A new debate is needed


In other words, too much of the debate about immigration to Europe is being conducted around a false choice. We cannot pretend that a growing influx of people from around the world does not impact on the perceptions of people already here, the cohesion of our communities, or our sense of basic security. Sustaining some kind of common civil culture, being part of society, upholding the rule of law, are all major challenges that must be recognised. Those who might want to create a more cosmopolitan and welcoming society for others from around the world have to accept the deep unease that is now felt about the apparent erosion of national identity and security.

But we must also accept that the things that make Europe attractive to those who want to come here – our wealth, opportunity, and liberal traditions – often depend on maintaining openness in our connections to the rest of the globe. Very few of the commentators or politicians now calling for tighter control are prepared to discuss the trade-offs involved in closing ourselves off, or the fact that more and more of our domestic population want to migrate, often temporarily, and enjoy freedom of mobility.

So the choice between ‘spontaneous harmony’ and ‘comprehensive control’ is illusory. But that does not mean there is an easy alternative. That is why, over the last year, Demos and openDemocracy have been working in partnership to create the starting point for a new debate about migration; to address the real fundamentals of migration to Europe, and to develop solutions that mean it can be managed sustainably long into the 21st century. Working in a personal capacity with Theo Veenkamp, head of strategy in the Netherlands Ministry of Justice, we are developing an outline of how Europe might change over the next half-century, and the place of migration strategies in its evolution.

Our aim is to stimulate a new, international debate about the impact of higher human mobility, the renegotiation of citizenship and civic identity, and the institutions needed to provide democracy and security in the coming decades. To kick-start it, we will jointly publish a pamphlet setting out a narrative of how Europe as a whole might evolve to meet these challenges. We plan a second phase of work that will combine detailed policy analysis with ongoing public debate about the issues.

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