It can be very easy to assume that everyone who opposes immigration is simply racist. This isn’t helped by the fact that many people present their opposition in extremely simplistic terms. Nigel Farage’s comments last year that “you know what the difference is” between Germans and Romanians is a particularly well known example of this. When opposition to immigration is presented in this way, it doesn’t matter whether other reasons could be given, the message is clearly based in prejudice.
I’m going to take a quick look at two possible objections to immigration before moving on to their implications.
1. Preserving Culture
This objection focusses on the idea that allowing immigration will lead to the existing culture in the receiving country being changed. This fear can be seen in the almost annual warnings that Christmas is being banned for fear of offending people of different cultures. Another recent example was the claim that Oxford University Press had banned any mention of pigs or pork in order to avoid offending Muslims. In fact, there had been no recent changes to their guidelines. The guidelines existed only for their children’s books and were intended to maximise sales as their books are sold in many countries. Which makes perfect sense, if you want to be able to sell educational books to children worldwide then you should avoid making confusing references. It is unlikely that a school child in Saudi Arabia would have much experience with bacon and so references to bacon in their educational material would tend to distract from its educational purpose and, as such, could harm sales. So, this is an example of a business designing its products to be suitable for different cultures and, as part of the media, it is plausible that it will have an effect on some cultures. However, as the motivation behind it is to increase the ability to export a product it is less relevant to the debate around immigration than it is to any form of friendly interaction with other countries.
As an objection to immigration in general this isn’t particularly effective. In order to maintain it we would need to convincingly demonstrate not only that cultural change is something that people have an interest in avoiding, and that immigration from distinct cultures drives this change, but also that their interest in preventing cultural change is more important than the interests of people who want to choose where to live. Even if this could be shown conclusively it would still only be a justification for limiting immigrants who are from cultures significantly different to our own. So, it would be a very weak objection indeed to freedom of movement within the EU and, depending on how distinctiveness is defined, it may not be much stronger with regards to the rest of the world. To draw on the publishing example above, is unfamiliarity with, or a distaste for, pork products really a serious cultural distinction? If it is then how should we deal with people born in the host country who dislike pork products for any reason?
2. Economic Objections
The other set of objections is rooted in the ability of the receiving state’s economy to continue to function effectively while allowing immigration.
On the face of it this objection may seem unsustainable as immigration results in a greater labour force, meaning that the host economy benefits from cheaper labour as well as higher demand for goods and services. The other side of this is that the downward pressure on wages for the type of labour supplied by immigration will leave existing suppliers of that type of labour worse off. This means that, for example, skilled workers such as bricklayers might object to allowing foreign bricklayers to immigrate on the grounds that it will reduce their earnings. This objection would be even stronger amongst the unskilled labour force as, by definition, any increase to the workforce, if they are unable to find work in their chosen field, will increase the available pool of unskilled labour and lead to reduced wages for all unskilled labour. This can lead to political pressure on the government to restrict immigration due to the negative effects it can have on certain sectors in the same way as various industries might push for protectionist trade policies. This means we have to make a choice between what’s best for the economy as a whole and what’s best for the people who are going to be effected.
The other economic argument against immigration is dependent on the existence of the welfare state. We cannot expect any public service to be able to provide the same level of service as it does under a low demand under a higher level of demand without increased funding. This is the idea behind restricting immigrant’s access to the welfare state. Although it may be detrimental to encourage people to move to the UK and claim benefits immediately (which non EU migrants are already unable to claim until they have been granted indefinite leave to remain) it may be different if there is a delay between arriving and being eligible for benefits.
So far the objections considered are only referring to immigration as a whole. However, refugees represent a population of migrants who possess a more urgent claim to admission than others. Even people who are against immigration generally, such as Nigel “you know what the difference is” Farage, tend to accept that refugees may be an exception and that we have duties to help them.
The question, then, is how can we best help them? Given that the objections above, regardless of how effective they are as objections, will contribute to putting political pressure on the receiving governments to try to accept as few refugees as possible. Currently, the EU is proposing a quota system to distribute refugees across member states according to each state’s size and GDP. Accepting this quota may mean that some countries end up accepting many more refugees than they do at the moment. However, it does seem to be a good way to meet both our obligations to the people who will potentially lose out in our own countries and our obligations to help the refugees. By spreading them out, rather than forcing Italy to deal with them as we are at the moment, we are both minimising the EU wide pressure on wages which will result, and enabling the refugees to be processed more efficiently than they could be under a small, overburdened system. To the extent that people are worried about the influence of immigration on their culture (whether this is a valid worry or not, people ARE worried about it) spreading people out according to receiving state size as well as GDP should minimise this impact. From the point of view of the refugees themselves, the most important thing is that they end up somewhere they can make a life. They may have different preferences but any way we can get them into a position where they can live well is better than leaving them with nothing. Finally, although it seem like wishful thinking at the moment, acting together will help to reinforce the values of cooperation within the EU which may help us to cooperate for our mutual benefit in the future. At the most basic level it isn’t states that are cooperating but people, and these people will form opinions about each other which will effect their future interactions.
Essentially, by cooperating in a quota system for refugees, we enable better results for refugees and their host countries, weaken the potential objections to helping and, hopefully, lay the groundwork for future cooperation.
Bibliography (only includes sources not directly linked in the text)
Wellman, Christopher Heath, “Immigration”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2015/entries/immigration/>
Ravenhill, John (ed.) Global political economy (Oxford: Oxford University Press)