This essay was published in the Observer (in a slightly shorter version) under the headline  ‘Europe’s immigration bind: how to act morally while heeding the will of its people’.

Europe faces a migrant crisis, but not the one we imagine. The dilemma it faces is this: on the one hand, any moral and workable immigration policy will not, at least for the moment, possess a democratic mandate; on the other, any policy that has popular support is likely to be immoral and unworkable.

This dilemma exists not because European populations are particularly drawn to immoral or unworkable policies but because of the way that the immigration issue has been framed by politicians of all hues over the past 30 years. On the one hand, politicians have recognised a need for immigration. On the other had, they have promoted the idea of immigration as a problem that must be dealt with. At the same time, politicians often express disdain for the masses whom many regard as irrevocably racist, and incapable of adopting a rational view of immigration. Gordon Brown’s description during the 2010 election campaign of pensioner Gillian Duffy as ‘a bigoted woman’ because of her worries about east European migrants captured the contempt of elite politicians for the little people’s immigration concerns.

This poisonous mixture of necessity, fear and contempt has helped both to stigmatize migrants and to create popular hostility towards the liberal elite for ignoring their views on immigration. The fallout over the events in Cologne on New Year’s Eve reveals how toxic this approach can become. Hundreds of women seem to have been harassed, mainly by men of North African or Middle Eastern appearance. The authorities, fearful of the public reaction, decided to cover it up. When the details emerged, they created an even greater backlash against migrants.

The contradictory needs and desires have also resulted in an incoherent, unworkable set of policies that have, paradoxically, been exacerbated by the development of free-movement policies within the EU. The Schengen area, the group of EU nations that have abolished passport and other controls at their common borders, was established in 1985. Today, it comprises 22 of the 28 EU members, with another four committed to joining. Only two countries – Britain and Ireland – are stand-outs.

The dream of free movement within the EU has also spawned paranoia about the movement of people into the EU. The quid pro quo for Schengen has been the creation of a Fortress Europe, a citadel against immigration, watched over by a hi-tech surveillance system of satellites and drones and protected by fences and warships. When a journalist from Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine visited the control room of Frontex, the EU’s border agency, he observed that the language used was that of ‘defending Europe against an enemy’.

Many of the policies enacted over the past year give, too, a sense of a continent at war. In June, an emergency EU meeting came up with a 10-point plan that included the use of military force ‘to capture and destroy’ the boats used to smuggle migrants. Soon afterwards, Hungary and other east European countries began erecting razor-wire fences. Germany, Austria, France, Sweden and Denmark suspended Schengen rules and reintroduced border controls. In November, the EU struck a deal with Turkey, promising it up to $3.3bn in return for clamping down on its borders. This month, Denmark passed a law allowing it to seize valuables from asylum seekers to pay for their upkeep.

Despite the sense that the crisis is unprecedented, there is nothing new in either the crisis or in the incoherence of the EU’s response. People have been trying to enter the EU, and dying in the attempt, for a quarter of a century and more.

luis melon

Until 1991, Spain had an open border with North Africa. Migrant workers would come to Spain for seasonal work and then return home. In 1986, the newly democratic Spain joined the EU. As part of its obligations as a EU member, it had to close its North African borders. Four years after it did so, it was admitted into the Schengen group.

The closing of the borders did not stop migrant workers trying to enter Spain. Instead, they took to small boats to cross the Mediterranean and smuggle themselves in. On 19 May 1991, the first bodies of clandestine migrants were washed ashore. Since then, it is estimated that more than 20,000 people have perished in the Mediterranean while trying to enter Europe.

Spain possesses two imperial outposts in Morocco, Ceuta and Melilla. After joining Schengen, Spain built a €30m bulwark to seal off these enclaves from the rest of Africa. The EU began paying the Moroccan authorities to round up and detain any potential migrants, often with great brutality, so much so that in 2013 the charity Médecins Sans Frontières pulled out of Morocco in protest at government violence against migrants.

The Spanish approach provided the template for subsequent EU migration policy: a three-pronged strategy of criminalising migrants, militarising border controls and externalising controls by paying non-EU states, from Libya to Turkey, huge amounts of money to act as Europe’s immigration police, in effect, relocating Europe’s borders for the purposes of immigration policy to beyond Europe.

None of this has prevented migrants from trying to enter Europe. They have merely been forced to find different, and often more hazardous, routes, moving further and further east along the Mediterranean. This is one of the reasons why so many of them now travel through Greece and the Balkans.

What has created the current migrant crisis is not, then, that migrants have suddenly started arriving at Europe’s borders. Rather, two things have changed. First, the spawning of savage conflicts in an arc from Afghanistan to Nigeria, the collapse of civil authority in much of that region, often as a result of Western intervention, the rise of Islamism, and particularly of the Islamic State, have all pushed much larger numbers to flee to Europe. The Syrian civil war has been the most critical factor in pushing up numbers.

Yet, large though they are, it is worth putting into context the numbers of migrants coming to Europe. A million refugees and migrants arrived last year. That represents not much more than 0.1 per cent of the EU population. There are already 1.3 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon – 20% of the population. That is the equivalent of Europe playing host to 150 million refugees. Turkey, the country on to which the EU would like to offload its migrants and refugees, already hosts two million refugees. Pakistan and Iran each have over 1 million.

Compared to elsewhere in the world, refugees are hardly ‘flooding’ into Europe. Some of the poorest countries in the world already bear the greatest burden. If these countries were to adopt Europe’s attitude, there really would be a migrant crisis. And that is the most reprehensible aspect of the EU’s policy: at its heart seems to be the idea that dealing with migrants and refugees should be an issue only for poor countries.

The second factor in the current migrant crisis is the political context into which today’s migrants come. Over the past few years, the very character of European politics has transformed. The postwar political system in Europe, built around the divide between social democratic and conservative parties, is being dismantled. The political sphere has narrowed and politics has been reduced to a question more of technocratic management  than of social transformation. One way in which people have felt this change is in a crisis of political representation, a growing sense of being denied a voice and of political institutions being remote and corrupt.

Immigration has played almost no part in fostering the changes that have left so many feeling disaffected. Immigrants are not responsible for the weakening of the labour movement, or the transformation of social democratic parties, or the imposition of austerity policies. Immigration has, however, come to be a means through which many perceive these changes. The EU, meanwhile, has become symbolic of the distance between ordinary people and the political class. The result has been growing hostility towards migrants and panic among policy-makers.

hold on

So what is to be done? Is it possible to square a moral and workable migration policy with the democratic desires of the European public?

Many seem happy to jettison the need for a democratic mandate, others to forgo the establishment of a moral and workable policy. The predominant view is that Europe needs stricter controls, bigger fences, more military patrols. Such policies may attract popular support but although those who promote such policies portray themselves as ‘realists’, it is not just an immoral approach but an unworkable one. The story of the past 25 years is that however strong one makes Fortress Europe, fences and warships will not deter migrants.

Nor will tighter controls change public opinion. Making Europe more of a fortress will do nothing to assuage the sense of marginalisation and voicelessness that many feel. However tight the controls, the demand will be for still tighter ones.

The ‘idealists’, on the other hand, seek to promote a more moral immigration policy, but also seem willing to ignore the democratic will to do so. This approach is no more workable or moral than the realist stance. No policy to which the public is hostile is likely to work in practice.

As Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, has discovered, pushing through liberal immigration policy without winning public support can have disastrous consequences. Last August, Germany unilaterally suspended the ‘Dublin accord’, the EU rule that migrants have to apply for asylum in the first EU member state they enter. Merkel promised to process applications from Syrian refugees even if they had already made their way through other EU countries.

Merkel made little effort, however, to convince the German people of the worth of her new policy. There was an intense backlash and within a fortnight Germany had reversed its stance and reintroduced border controls. The consequence was greater hostility both towards migrants and Merkel herself.

In immigration policy, there are no quick fixes that allow us to tie together the moral, the workable and the democratic. The migrant crisis is a longstanding one and whatever policies are conjured up will not solve it this year or the next. Indeed, the key problem lies not at the level of policy at all, but at the level of attitude and perception. That is why we need to think more in the long term.

Liberal immigration policies can be enforced only by winning public support, not in spite of public opposition. Winning such support is not a chimera; there is no iron law that the public must be irrevocably hostile to immigration. Large sections of the public have become hostile because they have come to associate immigration with unacceptable change. The problem is that the changes that have created voter disaffection have not, in the main, been caused by immigration at all. That is why, paradoxically, the immigration debate cannot be won simply by debating immigration, nor the migration crisis solved merely by enacting migration policies. Anxieties about immigration are an expression of a wider sense of political voicelessness and disengagement. Until that underlying political problem is tackled, the arrival of migrants on Europe’s shores will continue to be seen as a crisis.


The images are, from top down, ‘Voyage’ by Euan Benjamin Graham; Luis Melón‘s ‘20,000 Dead Migrants Crossing the Straits of Gibraltar’; and ‘Hold ‘On’ by J, the Refugee Art Project.


  1. Ad van Herk

    Feel your analysis is spot on. Failure of domestic policies is at the core of the dissatisfaction (some call it fear) of a part of the population. A population that over the years has also become more and more egocentric and vocal.

    • No, it’s genuine fear – incomers (unless few in number) are generally feared by settled populations.

      Though the Affluent Society that began in the Fifties has made us egocentric, has made it painful for Western people to practise (unaccustomed) self-sacrifice, which is never easy of course.

      And now the only alternative to doing so, is fascist brutality.

      And this grim moral choice – the pain of self-sacrifice versus the debasement of wickedness – won’t only be for other people, but for each and all of us. It’s too late for grandstanding and virtue-signalling.

  2. Agree with your analysis but would like to make one remark. I am presently working as a volunteer supporting refugees who have been given the status as recognized refugee and thus can stay in The Netherlands. The cost and effort involved trying to integrate refugees is significant if not enormous. I can understand that people who are in lesser financial situations or who do not have a proper home, have an issue with this. (This does not mean I agree though). And if the chances of integration are low, the long term cost will be huge. It is therefore important to speed up integration and make sure the refugees contribute to society ASAP ( and I do not mean the Danish way of contributing). We fail to remember that great nations like England, The Netherlands ( Golden Century) and The USA are based on the input of immigrants.

    • Agree with much of what you say, but:

      1) It doesn’t help those at the bottom of the pile who reasonably enough fear being sunk by migration;
      2) England is a nation that was built by migrants who arrived before 1100 CE ! (And who adopted Christianity). The post-1945 immigration into the UK has no precedent (in scale or nature) back over many centuries.

    • re: your comment that great nations like England , The Netherlands ( Golden Century ) and The USA are ‘ based ‘on the input of Immigrants ” … well The USA ( goes without saying ) but England and The Netherlands .. are you happy using the word ‘ based’ ? isn’t that slightly over egging it ?

  3. Excellent piece as expected. May need to track down the expanded version. The snobbish assumptions of the political elite , Liberal in particular , but others too, obviously, may finally wake up to realise that ignorance is something they are guilty of too.

    UK Muslim intransigence and open hostility to Quilliam push for a modern Islam, as seen on The Big Question 31st Jan BBC1, was the opposite of helpful and suggests the ‘ ignorant masses’ are correct in being concerned and resistant to the possible increase in numbers of people with the potential to become tribally passionate in asserting the rights of a religion ultimately violently opposed and insulting to our western values.

    Searched but could not find any further info on the powerful image created by Luis Melon.

  4. Americans should read this essay. Europe offers them a mirror. Might as well use it…
    Everything else costs us dearly… since the XVI Century…

  5. damon

    How about this?

    ”The Guardian/Obs. has very recently announced that it will be heavily restricting comment on articles dealing with three “sensitive” subjects – race, immigration and Islam, on the grounds that there has been “a change in mainstream public opinion and language that we do not wish to see reflected or supported on the site” and those subjects in particular attract too much “toxic” comment.

    So Kenan’s piece the other day would have had less responses completely disagreing with him and showing too much ”toxicity”. Reading those comments, I actually wondered what Kenan thought of them.
    Were they to be ignored? Or the people making them to be engaged and argued with?
    I’ve been reading reviews of the new book about how immigration has changed London.

    This Is London by Ben Judah review – the truth about a capital city utterly transformed

    Straight away there has been some sniping about it. David Aaronovitch took issue with some statistics.
    But from what I can guess by what I’ve seen so far, he does have a good go of describing what actually has resulted from the mass migrations into London. He describes Ilford and Beckton. And Barking and all the other shabby corners that are being filled up with streets of bedsits and houses of multiple occupancy.

  6. Regarding ‘This month, Denmark passed a law allowing it to seize valuables from asylum seekers to pay for their upkeep’ – Most States in Germany has done that for years, Swiss has done it for years. Norway has the same rules. Most of the Syrian refugees pay for their upkeep ( housing, food, hospitals)in Turkey or in Lebanon.

    In Northern Europe they don’t have to pay for anything. In Denmark they get free Housing ( High class housing), free schools, free hospitals, free university (including a stipend 500€ a month) and free upkeep – forever if necessary. And it is necessary for a lot of people. Typically in Denmark or Sweden only half of the fugitives are in a proper job after 7 years, the rest, well a few catch up. Thats reality.

  7. Fi


    Read your piece in the Guardian first and thought it was good. I hope they feature you more often as I feel that even when I disagree with you I admire your genuine struggle to reach for answers that are true and coherent. You have often changed my mind on some issues and I have been grateful for new and better perspectives. Feel free not to publish this as I know I am not a good writer. I have health problems at the moment that are making it difficult to type and hold on to thoughts and grammar properly.

    With the issue of ‘fortress Europe’ I am worried that we are dealing too much in negatives here and lacking in a positive vision about what it is that we are really trying to work towards. At a time when it has become commonplace for those on the left to caution removal of tyrants because we have not properly understood their value in filling dreaded vacuums and at a time when we are being asked to consider the value of natural features of the environent like flood plains, we perhaps still fail to appreciate societies as ecosystems that have adapted to their environment and have a vital role in the world. They are always evolving, always changing, but this does not mean that certain conditions cannot lead to their catastrophic failure. Their failure will often make the world a poorer place.

    I think the liberal western European left in particular often divides into two types of people. There are those who, filled with guilt over colonialism and wealth, think that we perhaps deserve to fail. There are also those who are frighteningly confident that we will not. Centuries of hegemony and wealth have bred the fear out of them and given them a patrician assurance that they are virtually indestructable. Neither of these mindsets is admirable. Southern Europe is a submerging economically and desperately needs our help, eastern Europe were the victims of empire not the heads of it. We are showing a distinct lack of fraternite to our near neighbours when our own guilt leads us to contemplate the void with them in tow. We are giving ourselves away as elitist rather than egalitarian when when we consider ourselves, in distinction from the rest of the world, as indestructable.

    If we can agree that liberte, egalitie and fraternite are good and that we want a world where this has a chance of happening over a wide area and staying in place, what does working towards this look like?

    It might look like what you have put forward Kenan, but with some caveats for me about how we engage in this debate. I’m not at all convinced that libertarians who posit free movement as the silver bullet here are right about that and I have become increasingly concerned about how the liberal left now borrows from questionable assertions made by the likes of Michael Clemens to rebut fears about negative outcomes for increased mass immigration. I am concerned that whole swathes of academia that deal with immigration are zealots of oppositionalism borrowing from a type of right wing economic libertarianism that they themselves don’t really suscribe to in order to bolster their arguments. Hein de Haas and others like him are good people, well intentioned people, but they are not good academics. Their studies are full of confirmation bias and bad logic. Anyone who is being asked to be counterintuitive on the basis of the results of their studies should think twice.

    There is a an rapid loss occurring in the type of knowledge of the physical world, gained through manual labour, agricultural work and manufacturing that the left used to have. Skilled urban leftists live in a highly globalized environment where digitized data and money have no geographial home. They forget that this culture still weighs heavily on the backs of those who are tied to the physical landscape.Those who grow and process our food. Those who mine. Those who manage the outdoors for us and wrestle products we use from raw materials. The farmers, builders, engineers and manual workers have skills that are often highly adapted to the local environment they work in. The great paradox about the current movements of people is that it is often these poor, undervalued manual workers who are the most adapted to their environment who are being pushed and squeezed , while the more affluent and often overvalued, who could work anywhere with an internet connection retain choices and remain unaffected for the time being.

  8. The article, though correct as far as it goes, overlooks the fact that there are real costs associated with migration.

    First, it leads (inevitably) to harsher competition for jobs, housing and education; and that at a time when outsourcing and European economic decline have already made life in Europe much harsher.

    Second, much of Western Europe is densely populated; the recent surge in migration (and it is an unprecedented surge, a step change, even though migration into Europe has been high for a long time) puts question marks beside matters like food and energy security and conservation of green spaces.

    These practical problems generate moral ones – well-caught by the working-class Jordanian recently on BBC TV News, when he said: “We feel compassion for the Syrian immigrants, but they will work for nothing and have taken many of our jobs.”

    If Jordanians – brought up with religious beliefs and in the belief that human altruism and co-operation matter – find this moral testing hard, then:

    How will West Europeans (secular, hyper-individualist, used to affluence) fare – cope ! – with the same moral test ?

    Answer: with difficulty – and incoherently. In 2016 – the year when (obviously) the migrants must either be welcomed in Western Europe or repelled by force, the EU’s governments and their populations are in general too selfish and frightened to do the former, too civilized to do the latter.

    Likely outcome: Chaos, helping no one.

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