Migration and Dishonesty

By dishonesty I understand an attitude that hides behind a facade of morality unpalatable measures that obviously violate avowed principles. The European immigration or rather anti-immigration policy is a glaring and shameful example. It is an incontestable fact that a vast majority of Europe’s citizens do not want further immigration. The governing bodies – i.e., national governments, the European Commission, and the European Parliament – are, of course, fully aware of this fact, not only through referenda, but also through the outcome of elections whenever migration (or xenophobia) becomes an issue. Politicians are therefore doing their best to curb immigration, for example, by paying (more correctly, bribing) Turkey with more than three billion euro to put a stop to further unwanted immigration to Greece and other countries of eastern Europe.

Any honest international observer knows that holding migrants back can only be achieved by force. People who no longer see a future in their own country due to political oppression or a lack of prospects for economic survival (a no less life-threatening challenge) are understandably prepared to overcome any obstacles by sheer violence if necessary. Keeping them out of a more promising country therefore requires an equal amount of counterviolence. This too is no secret to the EU. But the Union feels satisfied if others soil their hands in the process, so that she herself need not climb down from her elevated moral pedestal. I call this dishonesty. Violence is not diminished or made more acceptable by leaving its execution to others.

The same dishonesty is apparent in Europe’s treatment of the refugee camps in Greece, Libya or Tunisia. The prevailing conditions there are definitely inhumane (just as they are in the US-camps at the Mexican border). The countries of North Africa, just like Turkey, are being paid by Europe to do what is necessary to stop the avalanche of people from the battered countries of the Middle East as well as from the desperately poor countries of sub-Saharan Africa that are particularly affected by climate change. They do this by treating the refugees like lepers or criminals, because young adventurers hoping for a better life elsewhere or even desperate people with nothing to lose are deterred only in this brutal way. If instead they were handled with kid gloves in these reception centers, we can be sure that cell phones would immediately broadcast the sensational news to the entire world, causing the flow of people to swell into a mass migration.

Those who resist cheap lies cannot deny these facts. But most people want to be appeased with lies. They certainly don’t want any more strangers in their country, but they still want to live with a clear conscience. So, they are willing to pay large sums of money for the defense against migrants, but they do not want to know that the defense against desperate people and young adventurers is possible only by force and in violation of human rights. Can we see anything other than dishonesty in this attitude?

As long as there is that glaring difference between poor and rich nations, the situation is not likely to change. We should therefore ask ourselves what is more important, a clear conscience or the defense against unrestricted migration? For, obviously, both cannot be had at the same time. Moral absolutists, who reject any kind of violence against their fellow human beings, have a clear answer from the outset. For them, the distribution of all refugees from Asia or Africa arriving in Greece, Italy and Spain over the whole of Europe is a self-evident postulate. If they were consistent, they would even have to go much further. Without doubt, it is inhumane to expose boat refugees to the danger of drowning. The consistent moral absolutist would have to advocate a bridge across the Mediterranean, e.g. at Gibraltar.

Oddly enough, moral absolutists like to see themselves as staunch defenders of democracy. This is an embarrassing fact as it results in an obvious contradiction. They are very keen to help the people on the other side of the border, but for what they see as the unenlightened majority in their own country they have little understanding at best, and open contempt at worst. As already mentioned, an overwhelming majority in all countries of Europe is strictly against further immigration – and this with some irrefutable reasons. First-generation immigrants are willing to accept great hardships such as minimum wages in order to gain a foothold within their new homeland. They are therefore popular with entrepreneurs, but feared by workers, the unemployed and precarious employees as dangerous competition (a justified fear that populists like to exploit in the shape of xenophobia). As is well known, Donald Trump’s victory is not insignificantly explained by the resentment of the so-called “white trash” and its fear of precisely this competition. These people still crave for a wall on the border with Mexico. The moral absolutists, on the other hand, need not fear competition from refugees. On the contrary, they benefit from cheap servants, errand boys and parcel deliverers who depress wages. In other words, they can afford to be enlightened cosmopolitans and cultivate a clear conscience – after all, they are predominantly part of the educated, sheltered and privileged section of society.

We live in a time when we can no longer have both at the same time, a clear conscience and the defense against people beyond our borders. When we repel them, we accept the use of violence, yes, and inhumanity. It is nothing but dishonesty if we imagine to improve the situation by paying others to do the dirty work for us. That does not diminish our own responsibility. If we want to maintain a clear conscience at any price, we have to open the door to the avalanche of people from the many long overpopulated parts of the earth.

But what would we achieve by doing so? From an ecological perspective, the countries of Europe are already far beyond the sustainability limit at their current population levels. The most industrialized countries of Europe consume up to five planets. Not more but less people is – ecologically speaking – the only right strategy for the future.

The decision for or against open borders is thus one of the great challenges of our time. The decision is all the more painful as the people on the other side of the border have, of course, the same right to a decent life as we do. But moral absolutists oversimplify when they unreservedly approve migration on the basis of this conviction. They can certainly have a clear conscience – but only at the price of banishing inconvenient reality from their field of vision. The price is high – it consists in more or less conscious dishonesty.

In contrast, the opponents of open borders have a much harder time. They know that an unrestricted influx of strangers will cause resistance – popular uprisings, social disintegration, and even civil wars (in the United States, social disintegration is well underway). Their disillusioned view of reality makes the realists – let’s call them that way – anything but happy. They are painfully aware that desperate refugees can only be warded off by force in a world where climate change will soon condemn many to even greater poverty. For the realists, the problem is not dishonesty but the admission that there can never be – nay, that there will never be, a clear conscience on these issues.

The dilemma is expressed directly and factually in the incessant struggle between the two camps. The realists are willing to bribe border states outside the European Union for their services and to turn a blind eye to the way they crack down on refugees at the borders. They are only lying if they convince themselves: It is those brutal others who do so and not us. And they are also lying when they try to keep this brutality out of the public eye. 

The moral absolutists, on the other hand, are making every effort to expose these evils and make them public. They are constantly on the lookout for human rights violations by Frontex and in the refugee camps. Thus, in Europe, realism and moral aspiration are in irreconcilable and constant struggle with each other. It seems to me a particular misfortune that this real and existential dilemma is usually expressed and discussed only on the level of right-wing xenophobia versus left-wing cosmopolitanism. But that is not really the point – as is vividly demonstrated when European states recruit well-trained professionals from abroad and welcome them with open arms. As long as foreigners do not overburden the native population through excessive numbers and a lack of willingness to integrate, they can be a great enrichment. Almost all modern states have come into being in this way – a fact that a cursory perusal of telephone directories quickly confirms. The point is that an unregulated influx becoming too large within a short period of time poses a threat to the internal cohesion of any society.