Immigration is shaping up to be the defining issue of this decade. After the refugee crisis following the Arab Spring uprisings in the early 2010s, native resentment of generous immigration policies in the West are now front-and-center in our discourse. Research and polls suggest that this sentiment is the single largest contributor to the populist wave currently sweeping across the developed world.
Yesterday, my colleague Gemma Ksenia La Guardia wrote a piece accusing Western governments of failing to act strongly enough on behalf of refugees, claiming in her title that “History will damn us for our apathy towards migrants.”
Gemma’s claim gets at something important. Many, mostly on the far-right, do fail to exhibit empathy for the dire cases of these refugees, and even those of economic migrants as well. Also, as she pointed out in her piece, the ways in which migrants are dehumanized by many far-right politicians today sounds eerily reminiscent to the ugliness of German attitudes circa 1940.
These immigrants have been born into lives of hardship by no fault of their own, and we should always keep that in mind when making policy that could have life-and-death implications for them. Instead, those on the far-right write these people off as “the other”, absolving themselves and Westerners more generally of any moral responsibility for their plight.
To make another thing clear, it is crucial that Western countries respect the principle of non-refoulement: that a country cannot return a refugee to their home if they are likely to be persecuted upon their return. It is important that the West lead by example in the realm of international law, and non-refoulement is one of the most important principles laid out in it. The people who are genuinely fleeing genocide and the like should be given refuge in any country that they claim asylum in.
That being said, it is dangerously misguided to describe as morally bankrupt those who are more cautious about the negative aspects of immigration.
There are understandable reasons for Western skepticism in regards to policies that allow more migrants into their countries, especially given the dishonest track-record of their politicians on the subject. European representatives have admitted since the implementation of the “Guest Worker” programs of Post World War Two that they never had any clear plan for repatriating these workers after their temporary visas expired, or for any of the temporary or illegal immigrants that have come since then for that matter. In virtually every European country, liberal and center-right politicians have campaigned for years on easing the flow of immigration, and getting a handle on the wholly inconsistent visa application process, and in almost all cases immigration has either increased or continued at the same rate.
This, as one might expect, has led those citizens who are genuinely concerned with mass-immigration to place their trust in politicians who pin their entire candidacy on drastically reducing, or even completely halting immigration to their countries – the vast majority of these candidates being far-right populists.
To argue that Western nations must let in more immigrants at this stage, or that they should relax the already-insufficient immigration laws that currently exist, is to ignore the democratic reality we find ourselves in. Majorities of people in most European countries have expressed their desire for reduced immigration levels, and if governments and political pundits continue to dismiss their concerns as simply xenophobic or morally questionable, they will find themselves living under new governments that will forgo the individual rights of citizens and democratic procedures in the interest of pleasing their hardline supporters. In fact, many Western countries arguably already do find themselves in this situation.
In order to truly help alleviate the suffering of those fleeing conflict in the third world, European governments must take several steps. First, they must do everything reasonably possible to control the flow of immigrants coming into the continent and across borders within Europe. Second, there must be an efficient and practical system established to process incoming immigrants, and to repatriate those who do not meet the necessary qualifications. Both of these measures will help to ease the anxiety many European citizens feel in regards to immigration, and will therefore allow for measures that will directly benefit immigrants to be received more favorably by the public. And third, there must be more investment in refugee camps and services in and around the areas of conflict. Solid research by experts such as Paul Collier and David Goodhart suggests that instead of distant countries taking in vast numbers of refugees, the best way to handle refugee crises is to invest resources in countries nearby so that they can more easily go back home once the conflict has subsided, and to avoid all of the difficulties associated with assimilating people from significantly different cultures into Western countries.
It is not immoral to argue for lower-levels of immigration. Indeed, if we continue to portray this issue as a fight between the forces of good and evil, then we will inevitably drive a large contingency of otherwise reasonable people into the hands of genuine extremists who really do have morally repugnant viewpoints.