Of Immigrants and Refugees

Ethnic curds at the Syrian-Turkish border 2015. Photo by John Stanmeyer for National Geographic.



The history of mankind is one of constant migration. Peoples have always moved, be it for food, violence, or simple curiosity. Looking at the big picture, the recent controversies on the topic of (im-)migration seems all but marginal. Nevertheless, the debate has gained a considerable political momentum.
In Europe the current so-called “Refugee Crisis”, a direct consequence of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, dominates the public debate. In the United States, President Donald Tump managed to ride on the populist theme of immigration from Latin America. “The Wall” carried him through much of his electoral campaign.

Between security concerns and compassion, opinions are split. As the debates heat up, losing the overview on the issue is an all too human trait. The main arguments for a more liberal or conservative immigration policy will therefore be recapitulated below; three on each side, starting with the ones for a more restrictive policy. The reader is invited to weight each of them based on his/her on values and is highly encouraged to do further research. This is by no means a scientific article, rather a summary of a public debate. The reader may or may not continue with the author’s personal stance in the concluding paragraph.


The far most compelling arguments for enhancing national borders controls and tightening immigration policies are security concerns. The large influx of oftentimes undocumented people from different cultural backgrounds alone might be cause for distress. Immigrants from Middle Eastern countries are, due to the nature of medial representation, associated with the main issues that haunt their native societies: War and Islamic Terrorism. That fundamentalist Islamist represent a tiny fraction of the Islamic faith and even of that constituency only a fraction incorporates violence into their methods matters little. Indeed, groups and individuals with background in the Middle East and/or ties with terrorist organisations such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State (ISIS) have executed attacks in Europe and elsewhere, as have so called “lone wolves”, generally referring to people who have no direct ties with the organisations but have been inspired by their radical ideology. The security dilemma is at the heart of many who see the taking on of refuges as a generous gesture by the host country, which in turn is repaid with violence. However, one has to bare in mind, that the main strategic aim of terrorism is, by definition, to spread terror. A basic risk cannot be denied; still, one has to be mindful not to distort a rational argument with exaggerated notions of media-fed fear.

Cultural Identity

The loss of cultural identity, although less of an immediate concern, goes in the same direction. The large influx of people from an alien culture, so the argument, threatens the cultural heritage of the host country. One only needs to take a walk through the more densely populated suburbs of a European metropolis to validate this point. Indeed, every wave of refugees has brought with them parts of their own cultural heritage. In the case of Switzerland (the author’s home country) it has been people of Jewish faith during the Second World War, orphans from all over Europe after that war, then people who fled from various Communist regimes during the Cold War (Czechoslovakia, Hungary), then economic migrants from Southern Europe (Italy) during the second half of the century, and refugees of war-torn disintegrating Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The recent wave from Iraq and Syria is a continuation of that list that can and will be extended in both directions of the timeline of history.
The recent wave of immigration has caused augmented concerns because of the apparent import of sociopolitical and religious norms. Although not a new phenomenon, the simplified argument that immigrants from Muslime countries would prefer to live under Shari’a law in Europe makes a good newspaper headline. With it comes the whole train of controversies on the headscarf (or its more “elaborate” form, the niqab), mosques, minarets, and prayer calls. Add the language barrier, archaic paternalistic family structures, and domestic violence to that list and the case is made for a protectionist cultural policy.

Economic Concerns

The third main case made against immigration based on economic calculations and split into two parts. Firstly, every economy features a national unemployment rate. The mere existence of such a statistical number validate the rationalisation that if there is not enough work for the local population, there are even less available jobs immigrants and refugees. The fact that employers still hire foreigners, presumably because they are willing to work at a lower wage than their native competitors, has given birth to the idea that immigrants are stealing “our” jobs.
The second economic rational concerns the host country’s social security system. At the base of this system, each member of society pays a percentage of his monthly pay check into a fund. If such a member for some reason cannot work (accident, illness, pregnancy, unemployment, retirement), he/she will live off this communal fund until he/she is able to resume work. In theory, every citizen is eligible for such social benefits. Immigrants, on the other hand, are considered to be cheating the system because they also qualify for the program once they become citizens but may till then have made no contribution to it.


Ironically, the economic case for immigration are based on similar arguments. Firstly, so the findings, Western economies are in dire need of labor, despite the base unemployment rate telling otherwise (there is a difference between unemployed people and unemployed people looking for a job and cannot find one). This includes skilled (permanently in demand) and unskilled work (especially jobs that local population is more and more unwilling to do). With a bare exception of the United States, every Western economy features a demographic trend deemed unhealthy for the mid- and long term economic development. Simply put, wealthy societies do not have enough offsprings needed to maintain the standards for more than a few generations without a healthy immigration.
This is especially the case for the social security system. True, immigrants theoretically could benefit from the system without having contributed in the fist place, however, it is much more likely that they first contribute and then benefit like their local counterparts (with the mandatory exceptions, of course). That an ageing society on its own is not able to uphold these services for a growing retired population is no secret.
Additionally, in case war as a main cause for the displacement rather than economic strains, the socioeconomic background of immigrants is quite diverse, meaning that highly skilled workers arrive at the border — as it has been the case with refugees from Syria. With a simple language course, and some additional training, a doctor or lawyer thus could be integrated into the host country’s work force where the state otherwise would have paid hundreds of thousands of Euros and a minimum of six years in higher education for such a professional.

The countering argument to the notion of identity loss is one of cultural enrichment. Metaphors such as “melting pot” and “salad bowl” have been used to describe a process where cultural diversity is seen as a positive development, even a desirable, synergetic process. Popular traditions, the cuisine, and other, less political aspects of the foreign cultural heritage are often named as example to validate this point.
Taking a historian’s point of view, a second argument against the apparent loss of identity might be even more compelling. Taking into consideration that idea of a “nation state” is a mere one-and-a-half centuries old, the term “cultural identity” is highly ambivalent, even if national roots are searched beyond the idea of a nation. In the case made above about waves of immigration into Switzerland that considered only the last 70 years or so, the terms “Swiss culture” and “Swiss-ness” are hard to grasp if one looks beyond popular clichés of chocolate and cheese. Taking the example of the United States, which predominantly defines its modern history through immigration, the case for cultural identity is even harder to make if it does not include diversity. The questions that remain are whether there is such a thing as “national identity”, and if yes, how does (should?) it look like? Does it need to be protected or can it coexist? Finally, should it be politicised? Is Shari’a law really a plausible scenario in Western democracies, be it Switzerland, Germany, or the United States? If religious freedom and free speech is compromised for the sake of cultural protection, would this process not undermine the very same values it intends to protect, namely the idea of liberal democracy and equal rights regardless of race, creed, color, or gender? The resurgence of far-right wing organisations and political parties in Europe sure is worrisome.

Responsibility and Compassion
The final argument for a liberal immigration policy is based on human compassion. In an interconnected world, so the (idealist) rational, it is the responsibility of the global community (whatever this term means) to take supporting action in the case of a humanitarian crisis such as the Syrian Civil War. When in 2011 hundreds of thousands Syrians came to knock on the European door on its Southeastern flank as direct consequence of the war, this argument dominated the political debate. With the continuation of the war and the fading media actuality of the issue, however, it has become more and more difficult to keep this discourse alive beyond expert circles and humanitarian groups. That the six-years ongoing conflict does not seem to end in the near future has turned to notion of an “overnight guest in need” into one that is here to stay; a far more difficult thing to sell as humanitarian responsibility. At the same time the number of refugees is constantly growing. However, the accustomization to the ongoing crisis does not diminish the severances of the humanitarian situation or the gravity of individual fates.
Furthermore, it is rather impossible that in a globalised world, issues in one part of the world will stay in that part. The refugee crisis and the issue of immigration is such an issue by definition. A protectionist policy is hardly solving the problem but the consequence of such failure to address the issue will be felt globally, although in different degrees.


The discourses on security versus human responsibility, cultural identity versus diversity, and economic strains versus demographic relief dominate the debates on refugees. The dichotomy, however, is misleadingly simplified and to be consumed with care. To attribute the reality to either end of the spectrum runs the danger of muting the dialogue between the two positions only adding to the polarisation of the debate. If anything at all, it is important to keep the debate open and find common grounds.
The evaluation of each of these aspects is left to the reader and may well be influenced by personal believes, socioeconomic and sociopolitical background, education, cultural identity and so on. In my opinion, the arguments for a more liberal immigration policy are more compelling. This conclusion may be altered or adapted to new information and extended research and I am well aware that this represents a rather idealistic position in face of the current realities. Still, I believe that in the long run, compassion is a more suitable guideline for political and social developments than fear. Furthermore, as the issue of immigration and refugees affects societies on a global level, fact-based and balanced discussion should not be reduced to the political and academic spheres but should also be a habit in the public ones. As with any issue, keeping up a sane dialogue is a good start to its solution. Let us use the platforms.

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