Immigration – a right or a privilege?


Halts, bans and restrictions on immigration from Muslim countries might – or might not – be a right, good and effective policy, but they’re proving very popular with the electorates.

As I reported a few days ago, Americans favour Trump’s temporary halt to refugee intake from the seven majority Muslim countries by 57 to 33 per cent. A temporary halt to visas from these countries enjoys the support of 56 per cent, versus 32 per cent who oppose it.

In Australia, voters are almost evenly split on the wisdom of a Trump-style measure, with 44 per cent in favour and 45 against. Last year, another poll found that 49 per cent supported ban on Muslim migration, with not surprisingly 60 per cent of the Coalition voters in favour, but also 40 per cent Labor and 35 per cent of Green voters.

Europe, where the influx of Muslim migrants and refugees has been the most extensive, in terms of both the duration and the sheer numbers, the public attitudes are even starker. Yesterday, the Royal Institute of International Affairs has published the results of its survey of 10,000 people in 10 European countries who were asked if they agreed with the statement that all further migration from Muslim countries should be stopped. In all ten countries, the “yes” vote won, in most countries overwhelmingly. Only in Spain and the United Kingdom did it fail to reach 50 per cent, and only in Spain was the difference between yes and no anywhere close:


It’s no news to anyone that there is – and there has been for a while now – a chasm between the elite and the popular sentiment regarding immigration and multiculturalism. There are many different ways of conceptualising it, and one of them that strikes me as useful is that the people see immigration as a privilege, whereas the elites see it as a right. It’s a difference between “you’re so lucky to be here” and “we’re so lucky you’re here”. “The chosen few” vs “the more the merrier”. Controlled borders vs open borders. Migrants assimilating to society vs society assimilating to migrants.

Blanket statements like “immigration is good” or “immigration is bad” are meaningless. Like with most other things in life, it depends on the circumstances – who? how many? how? when? for whom? There are clear differences, for example, between inviting specific numbers of qualified workers to fill vacancies unfilled by the locals, and inviting low- or un-skilled masses at the time of high unemployment. Or welcoming those who find the local culture attractive and those who find it repulsive; those who want to fit in and contribute, and those who want to bring their old country with them.

Why are the open border elites so at odds with the vast majority of the population? There are many different reasons, which have little to do with the elite conviction that the masses are stupid and xenophobic. It’s true that being better educated and better travelled, those at the top of the social, economic and cultural pyramid are more comfortable with “the other”. It’s also true that different sections of society experience the different “other” and experience “the other” differently. As Radek Sikorski told me twelve years ago, way before his stint as Poland’s foreign minister, for progressive intellectuals, “multiculturalism [signifies] reading Salman Rushdie in a Thai restaurant”. For the masses, on the other hand, mass migration and multiculturalism mean living in or near migrant ghettos, being exposed to migrant crime, and competing with migrants for blue collar jobs. It might be too black-and-white to say that the elites get all the benefits of immigration (including that warm feeling of moral superiority that characterises migration and multiculturalism enthusiasts) while the masses pay all the costs, but it’s not far off the mark either. It certainly seems true, or truer, in social terms; economically, the picture is more complicated by any number of contradictory studies. Again, it very much depends on the exact circumstances; when you’re a rapidly expanding industrial superpower it might make sense to take in “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” – when you’re a stagnating post-industrial welfare state it might not.

There is no denying there is also something very Bertolt Brechtesque about the elite open borders project. As Brecht wrote in his most famous poem “Die Losung”(The Solution) following the crushing of the pro-democracy and anti-Soviet workers’ revolt in East Berlin in 1953:

After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

The Western masses have for a long time failed to live up to the mostly left-leaning elites’ expectations. They continue to be obstinate, somewhat parochial, somewhat conservative, and definitely not trendy and cosmopolitan enough to their betters’ liking. In the English-speaking countries, the large sections of the people also remain unreasonably wedded to obsolete concepts like capitalism, liberalism, patriotism. From London to New York and Berlin to Sydney, the people have certainly forfeited the confidence of the elites. Mass immigration and multiculturalism are as much about moral vanity, post-colonial guilt – and genuine cultural and economic benefits – as they are about dissolving the people and electing another, who will be much more in tune with the elite’s political, cultural, social and economic preferences.

Just about anywhere they come from in the developing world, the migrants are very likely to come from a collectivist if not statist tradition. They are likely to be group as opposed to individual focused, favour redistribution as opposed to enterprise, and be pro-government as opposed to pro-business. In other words, they are the perfect left-wing voters of the future.

This is not some sort of a wild conspiracy theory by raving crazy right-wing xenophobes. It might not be how most of the supporters of a larger migrant and refugee intake think, but it is one of the main motivations of the political elites, and they are pretty open about it. You can read just about anything regarding the creation of the “new” or the “permanent” Democratic majority in the United States, to see how the left wants and needs more minority migrants to help overcome the largely white Republican vote. In Germany, the Greens’ Stefanie von Berg spoke for many on her side of politics when she said that  “Our society will change. Our city will change radically. I hold that in 20, 30 years there will no longer be (German) majorities in our city. We will live in a city that thrives on having many different ethnicities. We will have plenty of people and live in a supercultural society. This is what we will have in the future. And I want to make it very clear, especially towards those right wingers, this is a good thing!”

I am generally pro-immigration – as an immigrant myself it would be hypocritical of me to be against it – but my support has always been qualified. I don’t believe any country has an obligation to take in open-ended numbers of migrants and refugees. Just because a lot of people want to live in Australia (or any other Western country) doesn’t mean they have a right to and we have a duty to let them. Migrants should contribute economically to their new home country as opposed to being a drain on resources, and should attempt to fit in and assimilate and not remain aloof and separate. Most importantly, all migrants (including refugees) should accept and support their host’s political and legal system. Australia (and, again, any other Western country) is not a smorgasbord where you can just pick and choose whatever you want, for example, the economic opportunities or social welfare, while rejecting democracy or the principle of equality before law.

In all that, I’m with the people rather than the elites: being able to migrate to Australia was a privilege, which I hope I have at least partly justified and repaid; as much as I wanted to come and live here, I don’t believe for a moment that I had any automatic right to and Australia certainly did not owe me the pleasure. Immigration is important, and in the right circumstances can enrich the country, both culturally and economically, but just as importantly, and in order to do so, it needs to enjoy a broad public support. The current widespread anti-immigration sentiment throughout the Western world is a legacy of the elites not only disregarding their people’s views but also belittling them for decade after decade. “Shut up, you racists and bigots” is not an argument. The people don’t want to be dissolved; if you’re not careful and don’t eventually learn, they will dissolve you first.