Nation shopping?

Immigration ought to be understood in the context of global economic injustice
September 18, 2013


A parody of the government's poster campaign targeting illegal immigrants, which "provoked fierce reactions." (© Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/Press Association Images)

Exodus: Immigration and Multiculturalism in the 21st Century by Paul Collier (Allen Lane, £20)

In early summer, a poster campaign was launched in London to encourage illicit immigrants to return home. It provoked fierce reactions, not least from those who saw it as colluding with an assumption that immigrants are guilty until proved innocent. Others welcomed it as a move to bring into proper public focus a subject regarded by many as too hot to handle. The whole business made it uncomfortably plain that we are still in a serious corporate muddle on the subject.

Those who—for a wide variety of reasons—find it suits them to keep levels of anxiety about immigration high will regularly accuse the bien-pensant political and intellectual world of suppressing proper critical discussion of the question and thus building up huge reservoirs of resentment and potential discord. Such accusations may reference concerns about the working patterns and possibilities of the indigenous white working class, about the religious and cultural heritage of the United Kingdom, about the alleged drain on public resources constituted by immigrants; they may, at worst, appeal to racism and xenophobia. They may embody suspicions about claims to the right of asylum and perhaps also about the entire language of universal rights over against the particularities of a nation’s needs. But they have in common a vocal conviction that someone is not allowing a proper discussion to be had, and that the real voice of the population on this matter is effectively silenced. And it does not help that the implementation of national policy on immigration is often chaotic and appallingly badly monitored, so that accurate statistical information is hard to find.

Paul Collier, who has written pungently on how to enable the poorer nations of the world to trade their way out of poverty and whose credentials as a serious analyst of global privation are impeccable, offers this book as a contribution to breaking the “taboo,” conscious that what he has to say will not please either left or right in certain respects. As he says, the question is not and never should be whether immigration is a good thing: it happens and will go on happening, and the question is rather what level of immigration is beneficial, for host societies and societies of origin. This ought to be discussable without knee-jerk reactions for or against nationalism, without charges of racism being promiscuously hurled around, and in the light of reliably analysed current data. At present, we have ignorant armies clashing on the subject and a disgracefully opportunistic approach from all the major political parties. If we want to avoid festering resentments developing into deeper hostility all round, we have to do better.

Does this book advance that entirely laudable aim? It makes a number of very substantial contributions, not all of them earth-shakingly fresh, but backed with careful statistical material and some admirably clear mapping of complex processes. Collier begins from the basic point that it is global inequality that fuels migration, and that, even with the slowing of economic growth in the “developed” world, there will be for the foreseeable future a gap wide enough to make migration a rational and attractive option for citizens of poorer nations. He explains why the size and coherence of a diaspora is a major factor in sustaining and accelerating migration levels and retarding rates of absorption or assimilation. He examines the measurable effect of immigration on the income, housing opportunities and social cohesion of indigenous populations, and disposes of easy myths about universally adverse effects while identifying areas that remain disturbing (especially as regards the last of those factors). He looks carefully at the effects of migration on societies of origin, stressing that a just and compassionate policy on immigration has to consider this alongside the effects in host countries. A final chapter attempts to identify some policy priorities for a more rational approach by government—ceilings, selection, integration policies and solutions to the problem of illegal immigration.

Anyone concerned about the issues will learn a great deal from all this. But there are some odd and worrying silences or near-silences and some conspicuous hostages to fortune. Most of the book proceeds as if the essential question were about rational choices on the part of immigrants; like good inhabitants of Philip Bobbitt’s world of “market societies,” they engage in “nation-shopping,” working out their advantage. Yet an hour or two in an advice centre (let alone a detention unit) would reveal that this is a pretty blunt instrument for dealing with a Polish restaurant worker, a Somali refugee, a Zimbabwean nurse and a Chinese post-doctoral engineer. What we are not given here is much sense of the sheer diversity of immigrant populations or the relative size and degree of absorption of different groups, whose attitudes to absorption will be radically variable. It is quite true, as Collier notes, that anxiety about “immigration” is mostly anxiety about the size of unassimilated diasporas; but if we are to have a more intelligent conversation about this, do we not need some help with understanding how different diasporas work? And it is only very late in the book that he—briefly—touches on what for many is the most blindingly obvious fact about global migration—that it is fuelled not only by economic inequality but by spiralling violent conflict and insecurity.

Then there is the uncomfortable issue of employment and pay. There are some very helpful pages here on the effect of immigrant labour on overall pay levels—not at all what the paranoid right would assume. But what is a bit blurred in the discussion is the way in which an economy heavily dependent on migrant workers will more and more settle for practices that obliterate the bargaining freedoms of the worker and consolidate the kind of low-wage, low-security environment that both exploits the immigrant and discourages the indigenous.

There are some hostages to fortune here, observations that could so easily fuel the attitudes Collier most deeply deplores. For instance, he quotes Robert Putnam’s US research suggesting that increasing immigration correlates not only with reduced trust between immigrants and their hosts but with reduced trust among the indigenous population itself. It is all too easy to see how this can be twisted into another blaming-the-victim strategy—but also how the statistical material does not apparently deal with the range of other factors in a high-immigration context which might intensify a lack of social engagement, such as the vigour of civil society groups, expectations of job security, levels of family stability. We’d need more analysis of this before concluding that there was a simple cause and effect relationship here. Likewise with the rather bland assumption that the problems of economically disadvantaged nations lie significantly in their “social models,” notably the inability of people to internalise excellence at work as part of their identity, so that institutions making for steady growth do not emerge. Collier’s allusion to the appalling teaching standards in some disadvantaged nations is entirely fair and accurate as a diagnosis of insupportably poor motivation; but there are larger questions about defining growth and understanding motivation in terms other than the bare imperative to growth. And then again, his proposals for regularising the status of illegal immigrants involves a process by which immigrants can be registered as taxpaying guest workers, but will not be eligible to receive full benefits. What is the rationale for refusing any taxpayer equal access to benefits? It sounds uncomfortably like a pre-emptively punitive strategy .

So there are a good many loose ends here—many to do with a feeling that the way migrants are being discussed is consistently homogenising and rather abstract. What is said about the desired criteria for admission (in terms of employability and general stability) is sound enough, as is the emphasis on better policies for integration (there is nothing racist about requiring migrants to work towards proficiency in the local language)—though we should be cautious about assuming that integration versus “multiculturalism” is a zero-sum game. What has been called interactive pluralism is not an idle dream and there are plenty of places in the UK where it is a reality.

One of Collier’s weightiest points is that we should not, out of misplaced generosity, foster a migration pattern that systematically deprives other nations of their best and most creative people. And one of the great virtues of the book is that it insistently puts the migration question in the context of a profoundly unequal and unjust global economy. But conversely, it rather leaves the impression that this inequality is to be resolved by everyone pulling together in a global spiral of economic growth rather than by any readjustment of the practice of the wealthy world. This is ironic given Collier’s somewhat troubling comparison of immigration to global warming as a problem that requires us to imagine kinds of control we have historically shrunk from. Surely the underlying ethical point is that an economy of spiralling “growth” is itself a problem, and that one of the toughest questions is how we sustain a realistic and hospitable immigration policy without buying into the assumptions of a world where cheap, mobile and politically powerless labour is the welcome tool of an unsustainable habit of consumption. Collier gives us some valuable material for opening such a discussion, but I’m not convinced this book quite grasps the nettle. However, if it shames some of our politicians into a more informed and less collusive approach to the question, it will have amply justified itself.

More on the immigration debate in this month's Prospect:

How much is enough? We do need controls over who comes, but better ones, argues Paul Collier (£)

Mine host: An exclusive poll by Peter Kellner shows that attitudes towards immigrants have hardened considerably over the past eight years (£)