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What does a good 21st-century immigration policy look like?

Immigration presents us with a moral and political quandary. Can two books help us decide what to do?

By Rowan Williams

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.

[See also: What the hysteria over migration figures misses]

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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. Hence, when a migrant arrives, there should be absolute precision about the conditions under which he or she can become a full legal member of the host society.

This, in its own way, is as challenging a picture as Jones’s: it proposes that limits on migration are not necessarily a matter of mindless bigotry. There may be a hundred and one terrible arguments for capping immigration, but there are a couple of serious ones, too. And ignoring these can land us in strange company. The global business that is ceaselessly in search of the Holy Grail of cheap labour will be inclined to support weak border controls, despite the devastating effect on communities of rootless labour patterns and the downward spiral of competition for “attractive”, money-saving labour supply arrangements.

[See also: Xinjiang’s governor should be arrested, not welcomed by the British government]

Paradoxically, Jones’s nomadic migrants, striking a blow against fixed state authorities, are in danger of becoming an anonymous, deracinated global proletariat unless the entire culture of global finance and business is transformed. Both Jones and Miller rightly locate their analysis of the challenge of migrancy in the context of modern globalisation, and both are cautious about giving too much house room to the reasoning of those who like open borders because these guarantee a vulnerable and powerless workforce.

It is a pretty intractable problem. Fully effective immigration control requires a nation state with a certain capacity to be directive, not to say protectionist, about its economic affairs. Jones notes how the security and prosperity of the average worker in the United States in the interwar period – and, indeed, up to the late 1960s – rested on boldly interventionist government, strong union structures built on the kind of collective bargaining that can operate when there is a limited workforce, and the consequent expansion of a consumers’ market. Without these conditions, mobility of labour will increasingly bring about falling production costs and rising profit. Yet societies must buy that mobility at the price of an ever more unstable future for prosperous consumers, whose standard of living used to rise in a regular pattern. The encouragement of mobile labour forces as an accepted aspect of our economic life also has an impact on countries whose (usually young) citizens are caught up in this pattern.

This is not only an issue about a brain drain; mass migration produces a weakening of ordinary civic solidarities. In countries obliged to assume that a significant proportion of their people will be abroad for an indefinite number of productive years – productive not only financially, but in terms of shared public service and responsibility – excessive mobility of working populations hollows out the civic space. These are societies that are often already economically and socially vulnerable.

Miller is inclined to be robust about this and envisages the host nation saying to a potential migrant, in effect: “You are needed at home more than here, even if your chances are economically better here.” There is in this a touch of the typical Western assumption that we are in a position to identify the best interests of other societies. Yet there is also a serious challenge here: do we have the resource and political will to make staying in a sending society a credible option? In a world of spiralling inequality, the answer is no. In which case, we cannot expect any falling off in the numbers knocking at our doors, and we had better formulate policies to manage this without violent coer­cion or collusion with prejudice. And we don’t seem to be doing that, either.

[See also: Why are voters so relaxed about record immigration?]

As Miller hints, a properly effective response would have to involve a very high level of international co-operation. Another paradox: insisting on our independence, our desire to form our own policies on these matters untrammelled by foreign busybodies, will result in more chaos. A migration policy that sought to work independently of European conventions and protocols would be unworkably burdensome and complex (as we are about to find out, as and when France changes its stance on border controls for the UK on French soil). Again, in an ideal world, the host country and the sending country would be discussing viable levels of migration, as part of an international monitoring (and possibly enforcing) regime that protected the rights of labour across the board. Jones may vastly overstate the case, but his vision of an international protocol on working conditions is part of any fair and rational way forward.

For both authors, despite all their differ­ences (and each illustrates with crystal clarity what the other regards as deplorably confused, immoral or regressive), the peculiar set of questions around refugees needs to be tackled in terms not restricted by general principles about migration. The “right” to migrate may be contentious, but the moral duty of stable and fairly prosperous societies to offer humanitarian support is not. Miller describes the practical difficulties as both intractable and “excruciating”. If we begin from his position, which assumes that the host society is in some ways bound to limit its sharing of resources, we are always likely to be forced into making decisions whose moral defensibility is questionable. But he insists that the moral claim of “weak cosmopolitanism” – a default assumption that we owe respect and support to every member of the human race, and succour to those most evidently in need or under threat – has to be given the benefit of the doubt.

Miller’s treatment of these questions is in no way comparable with the disreputable attempts to find excuses for not taking seriously the plight of those now seeking entry to the UK as refugees, and especially those under the legal age of majority. One of the strengths of his extremely lucid book is that it manages to state a strong moral and philosophical case against maximal cosmopolitanism and open borders without using this as any kind of excuse to ignore humanitarian catastrophe.

In that respect, Miller’s is an adult view of political choices: there is a diverse range of responsibilities to be honoured and we shan’t manage to do justice to all of them, so let us think hard about them so that we don’t let ourselves down too lightly, or simply ignore the seriousness of various factors and arguments. There are areas where many will disagree: some of what he has to say about the cultural impact of diversity needs scrutiny; some of his discussion of what counts as severe infringement of human dignity or liberty may sound rather minimalist. But he contributes more to the discussion of migration as a legal and moral question than nearly any other contemporary writer in English, not least in his careful and fair-minded treatment of those who disagree with him.

Jones, by contrast, is a fierce polemicist who finds almost nothing good to say about the institutions of the state. His nomadic, implicitly anarchistic migrants are curiously rootless and anonymous. It is as if, as in so many capitalist philosophies, people’s actual hinterland – familial, cultural, religious, linguistic – were irrelevant to their strictly political identity. He gives no evidence that migrants would accept this nomadic definition of their own identity or goals. What evidence there is suggests the contrary: migrants seem to be deeply invested in their cultural and religious identities, and also to be eager to be recognised and “normalised” within a host culture, or at least a host political system; they do not want to be nomads and they do not want their children to be rootless. They have certain significant positive expectations of the state.

This throws into relief one other thing that both books sadly share. The voices of real-life migrants are strangely absent. For both writers, the migrant is someone who is being talked about, interpreted, “understood”. But if the more useful and positive elements in both books are to be taken forward practically, we will need to listen to what migrants of all kinds say they want and who they say they are. Despite their many strengths, neither of these books shows much sign of that listening.

Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move by Reece Jones is published by Verso (224pp, £16.99)

Strangers in Our Midst: the Political Philosophy of Immigration by David Miller is published by Harvard University Press (240pp, £27.95)

[Use our migration tracker to find out how many people migrate to Europe and the UK]

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This article appears in the 13 Dec 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016