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A middle way on immigration

04 May 2018

Refugees should be welcomed — but national borders still matter, argues Adrian Pabst


Children at a refugee camp in Dohuk, Iraq, on Monday

Children at a refugee camp in Dohuk, Iraq, on Monday

PEOPLE are not commodities. Refugees, as a particular category of migrant, should not be viewed as anonymous and deracinated economic agents, uprooted from their linguistic, familial, cultural, and religious hinterland.

Rather, most, if not all, refugees are deeply invested in their identities, and they long to be recognised within a host country with its political system and culture. And those who wish to return eventually to their countries of origin do not seek a nomadic existence elsewhere, and do not want their families to be rootless.

The point is that the mobility of people has to have limits, which go beyond considerations of utility or freedom, because people are embedded in social and cultural ties — even though they should not be constrained by them. If they are not commodities, then they must have intrinsic worth and a wider purpose. Therefore, it is the reasoned and purposeful movement of people which needs to be considered.

This means that an approach to immigration has to be concerned with more than utility or liberty. An approach focused on the ethics of virtue and the common good would make distinctions between different kinds of migration. In terms of migration, this would need to be looked at from the perspective of both the freedom and dignity of the individual and the impact of his or her movement on others.

THERE is a case for strengthening the distinction between refugees who flee war and escape persecution, and migrants who leave behind deprivation and are in search of better opportunities for themselves and their families.

While the plight of refugees is a humanitarian catastrophe, the situation of many economic migrants is dire but not as desperate. And, while stable and prosperous societies have a moral duty to welcome the former and provide them with proper help (not least because countries contribute to migration through their foreign policy, arms sales, etc.), they do not have the same obligation to accept migrants.

The quest for human flourishing is clearly not the same as self-interest and individual advancement. It implies a sense of obligations to others and their flourishing, too, as both depend on one another. Obligations involve loyalty and sympathy with the people around us: family, neighbours, colleagues, fellow citizens, and people from elsewhere. Indeed, the strangers in our midst can be our neighbours.

At the same time, not all men and women have an equal claim to people’s affections. Christ’s injunction to love our neighbour as ourselves does, of course, extend to the stranger, but it does not abolish the importance of kin, tribe, and nation, and the inter­personal relationships of reciprocity.

From this perspective, borders should never be seen as absolute or confined to the territorial boundaries of sovereign states. A sense of community and shared “social imaginary” (Charles Taylor’s famous term) often extends across national frontiers — especially in the case of Europe and its ties to other countries (much more so than, say, Japan).

At the same time, borders matter to people’s identity, and therefore cannot be seen as entirely arbitrary. In the Christian tradition, there is a balance between belonging to particular places and people, on the one hand, and belonging to a universal human com­munity, on the other.

Here, it is instructive to draw on the tradition of virtue ethics which we owe to the fusion of Graeco-Roman philosophy (the four classical virtues) with biblical revelation (the three theological virtues), notably Aristotle’s idea of the “radical” middle way, an alternative to the excess of a characteristic associated with a virtue (too much courage leads to recklessness), or a deficiency in virtue (too little courage entails cowardice).

APPLIED to the question of immigration, the middle way is between, on the one hand, xenophobia, chauvinism, discrimination, and nationalism; and, on the other, a lack of regard for one’s own country and its people, and the privileging of foreigners over fellow citizens. To put it differently: we need an alternative to both egotism and altruism, because neither is relational, and both fail to practise the principle of reciprocity.

Pope Francis puts this well. He has called on states and citizens not only to welcome refugees who face persecution or extreme economic hardship, but also to provide assistance to countries whence migrants originate to allow people to stay at home. “The Church stands at the side of all who work to defend each person’s right to live with dignity, first and foremost by exercising the right not to emigrate and to contribute to the development of one’s country of origin.”

Beyond the choice between an open- and a closed-door policy for people or money, Christian social teaching reminds us that mercy and compassion have to be combined with assistance for people in their own countries, and integration programmes that take into account the rights and duties of all — indigenous people and migrants alike.

Dr Pabst is Reader in Politics in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent.

This is an edited extract from Fortress Britain? Ethical approaches to immigration policy for a post-Brexit Britain, edited by Ben Ryan. It is published by Jessica Kingsley at £16.99 (CT Bookshop £14.39).

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