Immigration: how much is enough?

Posted on 17 September 2010

This, of course, is a politically incorrect question to ask – and that’s precisely why I’m raising it. Indeed, given the massive migrations to come, due among others to climate change and economic opportunities, it’s a question that needs some proper thinking. As a reminder, let me quote a 2009 United Nations Populations Fund report: “Estimating future climate change-related population flows presents [a great] challenge, with figures ranging wildly from 50 million to 1 billion people by the middle of the century, either within their countries or across borders, on a permanent or temporary basis. The most widely used estimate of people to be displaced by environmental factors by 2050 is 200 million” – compared to the current 25 million.

Floods in Philippines, September 2009

The report further states that “overall, environmental migration is—and is likely to continue to be—mainly an internal phenomenon, with a smaller proportion of movement taking place between neighbouring countries, and even smaller numbers migrating long distances beyond the region of origin.” In my experience however, and regardless of migrants’ origins, people living in areas of destination usually have a threshold point where the further arrival of new migrants is considered as being ‘too much’.

Hence the necessity to ask “how much is enough?”. Before delving into the possible answers though, it is worth looking at the question itself. Framed as it is, it suggests that the relation to migrants is essentially of quantitative nature and can therefore be reduced to discussions about figures. Exit the ethical, economic, sociologic, historic and cultural dimensions of the debate. Using numbers out of context polarises opinions between ‘more’ or ‘less” and often lead to manipulation by leaders and opinion makers.

THE ANSWER IS CONTINGENT TO YOUR VIEWPOINT:

There are several ways to approach the question asked here, and what is important is to realise that each way affects the answer accordingly. One way to look at it is to oppose cultural factors (“they don’t respect our customs”) to socio-economic indicators (“our economy needs more cheap labour”). Another way is to distinguish between the sedentary populations and the migrants.  There are more ways to look at it, but let’s focus on these two interrelated approaches.

In the latter approach, the viewpoint of the sedentary populations is opposed to the migrants’ one. ‘Sedentaries’ may be welcoming in the first place but also have legitimate concerns that the overflow of foreigners in their space will negatively affect their way of life and dilute their culture. Changes in the social environment are features of every society’s natural evolution (think generational gap; new technology; financial crises, etc), but ‘sedentaries’ may associate changes (especially negative ones) to the presence of the ‘other’ – always this human need to look for scapegoats! This in turn contributes in nurturing high levels of low level racism – “it’s not that I don’t like you, it’s just that I was better-off before you came.” The relation to the ‘other’ is then framed in ways that the onus is put on the differences rather than the similarities – in particular when leaders and opinion makers look to garner popular support. Leaders however, do not throw ideas out of nowhere. They are also the product of their society:  the ideas and values which they represent reflect the culture, values, norms and history of the group they are leading. In our societies where images and sharp sentences convey more weight than elaborate thought processes, it is relatively easy to turn peoples’ concerns into fears – and subsequently cash in the emotional responses that they stir. Eventually, the question “how much immigrants is enough?” end up resonating within ‘sedentaries’ – otherwise, why would you even read this post? – and the subsequent narrow focus on immigration issues remain too often unquestioned.

Let’s now look at migrants’ viewpoint. Like ‘sedentaries’, migrants have a diversity of histories and experiences, but all have in common that they left their original place to move to a new one. Now, put yourself in their travelling shoes for a short time. Imagine that, for some reasons, you couldn’t find a job any more where you currently live, and had to leave your country to find a job elsewhere. You’d have to leave your family, friends, home. In addition, you’d have to leave the place that constitutes a big part of your identity; you’d have to leave a place where you have habits, which language you speak, which culture has framed your views of the world, of life and death, of relationship, etc. Then, you’d have to struggle quite a bit only to secure the journey: getting a visa – or being so desperate that you’d be looking to get into another country without visa, even if it meant putting your life at risk -; spending several months or years’ worth of your past salary to pay for it; you’d probably experience a variety of difficult material situations, from waiting endlessly to sharing a room, a boat, toilets with a number of strangers of all sorts, some being kind, other violent, and with the constant anxiety due to the uncertainties of your journey. Once arrived, you’d have to understand very quickly how the society works – from using public transport to finding a shelter, and, of course, a job. Without necessarily knowing the language or the culture of the host country. Again, you’ll meet some very kind people that help you through, but also a few that want to take profit of your situational vulnerabilities. However, you’ll most likely be surrounded by people who are indifferent to your daily difficulties, who don’t care about where you come from and what’s going on there, and who don’t have much time to listen to you anyway. You’d probably feel alone – very alone – most of the time; you’d probably have a low self-esteem for a long time; you’d keep on struggling quite a bit of time before you’d feel settled or at ease; and you’d continuously have in mind the family that you left behind, and the responsibilities you have towards them. Most of you would probably find security, confidence and tranquillity by surrounding yourself with people who come from the same culture than you. Gradually though you’d settle in, enriching considerably your experience, but also wondering regularly who you actually are. You’d probably feel a mix of gratefulness and resentment for the host country’s people. You’d want to be like them, but also keep elements of your original identities.

Again, migrants’ experiences and stories are different, but they certainly encompass some or all of the above. What does it mean? That it’s not an easy choice for people to come and settle to your country. That if most want to blend in your culture, they also face genuine difficulties to do so. And that they are full of dreams, hopes, expectations but also contradictions. This, in turn, is also true of ‘sedentaries’: they too are full of contradictions, dreams, hopes, expectations, and given the crazy pace of the industrial society and its focus on individualistic undertakings, it is not surprising that they remain ignorant about migrants’ fate.

Depending on the viewpoint used to tackle the question asked here, you end up with different answers. Eventually, immigration is framed as an utilitarian issue rather than, say, an ethical one. People end up seeing the ‘other’ as a security threat or as an economic opportunity, rather than as someone to care about. In the former case, people will likely be supportive of limiting the numbers of immigrants – or accepting only those that said to be useful, such as skilled/educated migrants, and will accept coercive approaches to handle immigration. In the latter case, they might as well think that there are too many immigrants around them, but instead of ‘securitising’ migrants, they will look for the root causes of immigration and work on the reasons for which migrants first leave their country. This then implies looking at the bigger picture, and perhaps adopt an ecosophical perspective, but that’s another story.

What is crucial then, is to understand how one comes to see immigrants as security/economic issues rather than a human rights one. Such analysis will be the subject of a latter post. Meanwhile, your perspective is welcome: do you see immigrants as security/economic issues or human rights one? Or a mix of both? Most importantly, what are the reasons that explain your views on the subject – in other words, what is the rationale behind your opinion?



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