Are we allowed to fear immigration?

image-20160311-11302-xmox61When you wake up to hear that the Archbishop of Canterbury is the lead item on the morning news, then you feel something has either gone very right or something has gone very wrong. That’s what I felt last Friday, and the comments that prompted the headlines were in Justin Welby’s interview with Parliament’s The House magazine.

“There is a tendency to say ‘those people are racist’, which is just outrageous, absolutely outrageous,” he says. “Fear is a valid emotion at a time of such colossal crisis. This is one of the greatest movements of people in human history. Just enormous. And to be anxious about that is very reasonable.”

There were two instant (and predictable) reactions. One was to say (with Giles Fraser) ‘But much of the fear of migrants really is racist, archbishop’, offering the kind of blanket suppression of thinking about the serious issues involved that Welby was appealing for. (It also [wilfully?] misreads what he said: he was not referring to the fear of migrants but to fear of the effects of migration.)

The other was to blame Welby and his PR team for incompetence.

He and his staff were naive at best if they didn’t realise that parts of what he said could (and therefore would) be picked up by the usual suspects as some sort of justification for their repellent attitudes.

This raises the interesting question of whether I am responsible for people taking my words out of context, misreading them and making headlines of them. (This is an especially interesting question in relation to the Bible: is God responsible for the way people misread the Scriptures?) Of course, anyone in the public sphere needs to consider that all comments are capable of misinterpretation, and we need to avoid giving hostages to fortune. But I wonder what we could say if everything must be couched in terms that could never be misinterpreted? I’m not sure we could say much.

The Economist’s religion and culture blog Erasmus did highlight the unusual nature of the comments; fear is most often something that Christians (and other religions) says we should be free from, except the fear of God. “Fear Him [God] ye saints, and you will then have nothing else to fear…” And yet there is a palpable sense of fear and uncertainty within the communities most directly affected by migration, and these are often communities that Government leaders are not part of (Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell is a refreshing exception to this). Here is one person’s experience:

I live in an inner city area where there is a drastic shortage of quality housing and school places. We have a large Muslim community who live in a parallel world from everyone else and a thriving criminal fraternity from east european countries. These issues create concern and fear and, I must say, that fear extends to the immigrant community who have been here for years. Ironic, I know, but its a fact.

Another of the ironies of migration is that politicians often talk aspirationally of migrant communities (of each era) integrating with the indigenous population, but all the evidence is that they do not—at least for a long time—and in fact that they should not. Research shows that immigrant communities, coming for whatever reason, make the transition to their new context much better if they are in significant sized groups so that they can help and support one another during the period of change—and preserve their own cultural identity and values.

Welby himself highlights the issue of pressure on resources at a local level, and the Express picks up on this.

With housing waiting lists longer than ever, too few school places, queues out of the GP surgery door and hospitals at breaking point, there are legitimate concerns that our relatively tiny island will not be able to cope with a further influx of displaced people.

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 08.30.47From a purely analytical point of view, this raises the question of emigration and net migration; if all EU citizens living in the UK returned to their own countries tomorrow, and in turn all UK citizens living in other countries in the EU returned here, what would be the net effect? The official figures suggest that this would balance out, since there are apparently just under 2 million of each. But, rather shockingly, the official figures are almost certainly wrong.

According to official figures 1 million EU migrants came to Britain over the past five years, but over that same period 2.25 million registered for national insurance numbers.

This suggests that EU immigration to the UK in the last five years alone significantly outweighs UK citizens living elsewhere in the EU. And this masks further asymmetry: the majority of UK citizens abroad are either taken there by (usually well paid) work, or they have retired there, taking significant capital sums with them. A good proportion of EU immigrants come to the UK to do relatively unskilled work, which is much better paid than even skilled work that they could do at home. I travel a lot, and I am in the habit of asking those who sell me coffee at stations and on trains where they come from; I cannot remember the last time I was served by someone British. The economic reality of migration is that much of our food production industry would collapse without migrant labour.

This enormously complicates the debate about how we respond to the refugee crisis. Justin Welby has long been critical of current Government policy, and he repeats this in The House interview.

Just days before our interview Welby visited Germany to witness first-hand the response of the German church to the crisis, and take lessons from their “very effective” collaboration with the government. “I was in Berlin, and the churches there are doing the most extraordinary things, as are the German people,” he says. “They took 1.1m last year. And it does make 20,000 over several years sound really very thin.”

Britain is “leading the world”,” he says, when it comes to offering humanitarian support in the region. “But it’s got to be both, not either/or. What the government is doing in the refugee camps and at the origin of the issue is really excellent. We’re taking an extraordinary lead there. It shows what we can do. Can we not show the same capacity and strength here, as we do there?”

Andy Walton points out very helpfully the whole range of things Welby has been involved in which demonstrate his bona fides in this debate. The Independent complains that ‘at a time when the plight of refugees in Europe is more prominent than ever, it is extremely dangerous to present “fears” about wider immigration as simply not being racist, as the archbishop has done.’ Yet it is clear that Welby is at least as critical of those reluctant to welcome people in need.

But the discussion about what we should do by way of planned migration to help those in desperate need is always overlaid on a context of the challenges of uncontrolled and unplanned migration. As Dominic Raab, in Michael Gove’s justice department, points out, free movement of people is an EU commitment, and appears to be a central commitment to membership of the EU which cannot be negotiated away.

RuthAndNaomiDoes biblical theology have anything to contribute to this debate? Christians have often been quick to point to the themes of radical hospitality in both Old and New Testaments—care for the orphan, the widow and the ‘resident alien’, who more likely has come as an economic migrant than as a refugee into Israel’s borders, is a consistent theme in OT ethics. This is picked up in the New Testament in the consistent emphasis on the need to show hospitality to strangers, ‘for thereby some have entertained angels unawares’ (Heb 13.2, alluding to the story of Abraham in Gen 18). This is also in response to the early Christian community’s awareness that they themselves were resident aliens, pilgrims or perhaps refugees within their own culture (1 Peter 1.1). All this offers compelling support for a more compassionate and radical response to the refugee crisis, as Welby highlights.

But the challenging counterpoint to that welcome is in the insistence in the OT that the ‘resident alien’ adopt the culture and values of the people of God with whom they are sojourning. In the archetypal story of the refugee’s journey, the book of Ruth, one of Naomi’s daughters-in-law Orpah returns to her native country, but the other, Ruth, travels with Naomi making this declaration ‘Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God’ (Ruth 1.16). In the NT, Paul’s theology is one of radical hospitality to the Gentiles—the grace of God to his people the Jews now overflows to the whole world. Yet the demands of this inclusion are fairly stringent, and the welcome involves leaving behind key aspects of ‘what some of you were’ (1 Cor 6.11) and an adoption of key elements of Jewish culture and ethics.

This does not offer any simple corrective to issues of migration—after all (despite what you might read in some tabloids or on certain blogs) the UK is not the Chosen People, and our values don’t align with the teachings of the Bible in manner of an ancient theocracy. But it does highlight the issue underlying many others—that when people move, they bring with them cultures and values, and so migration is never a value-neutral exercise.

In particular, the EU’s commitment to ‘the free movement of people’ as part of the ‘free movement of business and services’ is making a specific value judgement. It appears to be treating people as not much more than units of production, and assuming that any differences of culture can be held within overarching European shared cultural values. I cannot help thinking that it is this, more than anything else, which needs questioning—and answering it might unlock a more compassionate response to those who are the real ones in need of a migrant’s welcome.

Follow me on Twitter @psephizo

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?

Signup to get email updates of new posts
We promise not to spam you. Unsubscribe at any time.
Invalid email address

If you enjoyed this, do share it on social media (Facebook or Twitter) using the buttons on the left. Follow me on Twitter @psephizo. Like my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, you can make a single or repeat donation through PayPal:

For other ways to support this ministry, visit my Support page.

Comments policy: Do engage with the subject. Please don't turn this into a private discussion board. Do challenge others in the debate; please don't attack them personally. I no longer allow anonymous comments; if there are very good reasons, you may publish under a pseudonym; otherwise please include your full name, both first and surnames.

9 thoughts on “Are we allowed to fear immigration?”

  1. Spain and Greece’s economic woes are partly tied to their declining populations and Germany, whose population is also getting smaller, is terrified that it will be next as the sick man of Europe. My view is that Germany is making a conscious decision to import migrants so that the institutions it needs to borrow from will continue to lend to it. The Western world’s debt is like a multi-generational mortgage and lenders are starting to wonder if there will be a next generation to service the debt.

    • Thanks. I mentioned in a previous article on migration that the demographic time bomb is not irrelevant to Germany’s policy—but I am not sure it can completely account for it.

  2. Not an easy subject. I think one thing that perplexes me is the disconnect that many Christians seem to accept when it comes to stewardship. Most Christians are to some degree environmentally conscious; not polluting, recycling and so on as they attempt to carefully steward the environment they have received for the next generation.
    When it comes to freedom, and also culture and social capital, they seem entirely profligate. They and their ancestors have benefitted from generations of gradually increasing trust, but are entirely happy for their children to inherit a society in which they do not share language, cultural ideals etc (treatment of women being just one example; see the gender-segregated local Labour meeting).
    They seem entirely in denial of the fact that, whilst possibly a small contingent, there is an explicitly stated desire of some Muslims worldwide to conquer nations by the covert means of immigration and out-populating other cultures and faiths, a goal which may not be unrealistic when one examines birth rates by religion.

    Whenever you hear someone say “any civilised society would…” (welcome all comers with open arms), it becomes clear people have zero idea how fragile “civilised society” is. As though once certain levels of safety and provision have been reached, it will never go backwards. If only they could see the secular, liberal societies of the Middle East as few as 50 years ago. Liberty and stability are hard won and slow to develop, but can be destroyed extremely quickly. It strikes me that if their attitude to the physical environment was the same as their attitude to the cultural and social environment, they’d be eating off plastic disposable tableware, driving Hummers and burning tyres for heating.

    • Thanks Tom. I think you are right—we don’t really understand what we have and how valuable and fragile it is.

      I wonder to what extent this is due to the mediation of the situation in other countries by a sound-bite media…?

  3. There are several important distinctions that need to be drawn in these discussions, a number of which you mention above. The distinction between being anti mass immigration and being anti-immigrant is a hugely important one. Recognizing the difference between temporary refuge and permanent resettling is a big one too.

    The notion that integration is just a matter of course and time is an incredibly naive one. It all depends upon the populations in questions. Groups such as the Romani people arrived in Europe over a thousand years ago, but can still retain a rather distinct identity. The different ethnic groups that populated the US—even the different groups from the British Isles—still produce highly distinctive regional cultures centuries on, even though they have culturally assimilated to the cultural solvent of American society far more than in most other societies. The problem is that many of the things that we really need to be discussing in assessing the capacity of groups to integrate or assimilate are relatively politically incorrect or sensitive subjects:

    1. Marriage patterns. As this important article observes:

    Integration into a wider national life is further hindered—and the retention of a deeply foreign culture is further encouraged—by the fact that most Pakistani marriages, even if one spouse is born in Britain, essentially produce first-generation-immigrant children: the one study that measured this phenomenon, conducted in the north England city of Bradford, found that 85 percent of third- and fourth-generation British Pakistani babies had a parent who was born in Pakistan. (Incidentally, that study also found that 63 percent of Pakistani mothers in Bradford had married their cousins, and 37 percent had married first cousins.)

    Psychological and sociological research is increasingly taking account of the problem that much of its research is upon W.E.I.R.D.—Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, Democratic—subjects. However, another letter should be added to this: O for Outbred. In contrast to most other countries, and through various historical and other factors, North Western Europeans (and the populations that have arisen from them) have developed a highly exogamous and nuclear form of marriage society, without the viscosity of most others. This undermines the clannishness that is a profound force in other cultures (Arab cultures being a good example—where consanguineous marriage, and particularly marriage on the father’s side, is dominant in contrast to matrilineal cousin marriage in East and Southeast Asia) and makes us apt for universalistic democratic societies. It ramps up our levels of altruism and greatly decreases forces of in-group loyalty. We should not be fooled by our universalist instincts, however: most cultures do not form universalist individuals as ours do and universalism can be a dangerous trait in some contexts. Many of the populations that come to our shores won’t extensively intermarry with the indigenous population of the British Isles and will practice marriage patterns that reinforce their distinctiveness, clannishness, and connection with their countries of origin.

    2. Culture. Cultures have very different and often incompatible values. Some cultures, while very different, integrate well to Western structures. East and Southeast Asians may be highly endogamous, typically producing very homogeneous societies, but they have typically represented ‘model’ immigrant communities, integrating (without usually assimilating) well to the structures of modern democratic capitalist societies. A moment’s thought about distinctions between cultures should teach us that integration and assimilation are not mere matters of course as cultural values can provide powerful obstacles to this. Although some leave it, the Amish culture as a whole has been extremely resistant to assimilating to the Anglo-Germanic solvent of American society. Unless their culture undergoes a radical change, it will not do so any time soon.

    3. Religion. Not all practices and forms of religion are equally apt for living within or forming a pluralistic society.

    4. Human biodiversity. Despite its understandable capacity to spook people, this is an issue that is increasingly unavoidable, as we begin to recognize genetic underpinnings for behavioural traits and the ways that these are unevenly distributed between populations. This shouldn’t surprise us, as the human race has been formed of largely discrete populations that have undergone very different selective pressures over extended periods of time. We have been breeding ourselves for success in very distinct environments for millennia. A few thousand years of relatively urban living will select for rather different traits and aptitudes than thousands of years in hunter gatherer societies. The idea that every population will exhibit the same low time preference, low aggressiveness, high capacity for abstract thought, and low clannishness that are privileged within Western pluralist, universalist, cosmopolitan, and capitalist democracies is naive wishful thinking. The dynamics of some cultures and the behavioural traits they have fostered over millennia may directly push against the structures of such a society.

    5. History. The compatibility of populations has much to do with their histories. We belong to people groups whose character, loyalties, and identities have been shaped in different ways. Some groups have too much history to assimilate any time soon. Other groups have a long history of positive interactions that make them apt for closer relations.

    It is the failure to address such issues that leaves us unable adequately to answer questions such as that of whether and how Turkey is part of Europe.

    A successful immigration/refugee policy would have to be a discriminating one. It would have to discriminate between economic migration and the immediate need for refugee. It would have to discriminate between temporary refuge and permanent resettling. It would have to discriminate between different modes of entrance in the host country. It would have to discriminate between populations with a history of successful integration and those without such a history. It would have to discriminate between populations with different levels of compatibility (for instance, a migration bloc of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the UK would be quite a natural fit). It would have to discriminate between cosmopolitan and clannish populations, recognizing the different viscosity of different populations. It would have to discriminate between various contexts within the host nation and their relative capacity to absorb different degrees of outsiders. It would have to discriminate between a government’s primary duties to its own citizens and its wider duties, rather than letting a sort of universalist ethic run amok. It would have to discriminate between the interests of various classes within the host nation, privileging the interests of the most vulnerable classes (this is an important article, in part because it highlights the place of mass immigration in globalist class warfare). It would have to discriminate between the relative pace of assimilation for different populations, taking account of the ways in which mass communication and speed and cheapness of international travel may decrease this pace for many. It would have to discriminate between policies of uninterrupted immigration and staggered processes of immigration, where one cohort of immigrants is integrated before a new cohort of immigrants is added (Douthat’s Ten [sic.] Theses on Immigration make this and various other helpful points).

    There really is not a one-size fits all approach here. It is not dissimilar to the question of welcoming a stranger into one’s home. Some strangers should not be welcomed in, as they pose a serious threat to the lives or well being of those in the house. Others should be welcomed yet treated with a degree of caution. Others can enjoy hospitality for a few days, but might overstay their welcome after that. Some might have an unlimited welcome extended to them. A very few might become family members themselves over time.

    When it comes to Middle Eastern refugees, I think that the West would be far wiser to pursue ideas like this, creating new possibilities and safe homes for people near the affected regions, rather than allowing an influx of economic migration that will produce long term social problems.

    • Fascinating stuff as always, Alastair. I agree with you that we are completely blind to patterns of marriage and tribal loyalty in other countries. I once read of a book by a US journalist who argued that conflict was endemic to Arab culture precisely because of such clan identity—but I cannot now trace it. It seems to me to be an important element of the debate, but always ignored because it is not politically expedient.

      I also agree with you that Turkey will be a test case. It looks to us close to Europe, but culturally it clearly is not, and its joining would surely mean the end of the EU.

  4. The rise of Trump and, to a lesser extent, UKIP in Great Britain, leads back to mainstream politicians sticking their heads in the sand when it comes to immigration; and worse, accusing anyone who has issues with it of being a racist (since those issues predominantly affect those on low income). So all credit for this post, and a balanced examination of the issues. I agree that immigration needs to be about more than economics.


Leave a comment