Stick or Twist-The Hard Problem of Migration: What Does a Good, 21st-Century Immigration Policy Look Like?

By Williams, Rowan | New Statesman (1996), December 16, 2016 | Go to article overview

Stick or Twist-The Hard Problem of Migration: What Does a Good, 21st-Century Immigration Policy Look Like?


Williams, Rowan, New Statesman (1996)


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This is a subject on which confusion, malice and panic continue to dominate discussion. At the end of a year in which migration has featured as an important theme of two depressingly irrational political campaigns, it might feel as though populist emotion had won the day for the time being. But both of these books--in drastically different ways--alert us to questions we cannot avoid indefinitely if we want a reasonable and humane approach to how comparatively prosperous nations should respond to rising levels of migration, including the unprecedented numbers of people displaced by war, persecution or extreme climate conditions.

Reece Jones's practical suggestions are wildly ambitious and somewhat disconnected from anything that looks like political reality, but his book focuses helpfully on an uncomfortable and generally overlooked fact--that in recent years border control regimes have become increasingly and often horrifically militarised in many parts of the world. Physical restraints in the shape of walls and security fences have multiplied; the body count is appallingly high. For Jones, this shows that the institutions of the modern state are essentially violent: they are the means of controlling territory and population in the interests of a dominant elite, financial or political, or both.

Migrants are the agents of a new global revolution, resisting the tyranny of the state's practices of exclusion. What we should do is lift all border restrictions, implement an internationally agreed set of rules on working conditions and somehow "rethink" property owners' unlimited rights to exploit what they believe belongs to them (so as to limit environmental degradation, thus reducing poverty and instability worldwide). Consequently, the migrant who defies existing borders and limitations on movement is part of a gradual unsettling of conventional politics and economics.

David Miller, in sharp contrast, offers a detailed refutation of the idea that there is a universal and uncontestable "right" to migrate. What he calls "strong cosmopolitanism"--the idea that everyone is endowed with the right to live and work wherever they choose by virtue of their right to have equal access to social and economic goods is, he claims, unsustainable. The sheer variety of societies and local resources is such that global equality of opportunity is too abstract an idea to have any moral purchase. This does not in any way lessen the force of the existing and well-defined right to leave one's country, which recognises that a state may fail to secure the liberties necessary for a decent human life, and therefore an escape route may be needed. However, this principle does not carry the implication that any other state has a duty to accept a migrant. We may assume that a migrant should be given every opportunity to integrate and, ultimately, become a citizen, but this still allows us to be selective about which migrants we welcome.

Miller is generous about refugees but makes a strong case for limiting migrant numbers. It is clear to him that refusing migrants entry on the basis of race is immoral and illegal, but he stoutly denies that capping numbers is inherently unjust. On the contrary, he states (echoing a point made forcefully by Paul Collier in recent years) that a policy of unreserved welcome exacerbates deprivation in a "sending" country, because it steadily strips that nation of professional skills and long-term working commitment: the "brain drain" argument.

He adds a point of his own which is seldom heard--increasing the population of a crowded and high-energy-consuming state such as the UK will potentially intensify the environmental strain on the planet. Miller's overall case is based, as he says, on a "communitarian" vision: societies work when they are able to support collaboration within their own boundaries. A large proportion of temporary or "irregular" residents weakens the social mutuality of a good society. …

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