Identity is at the heart of today’s immigration crisis


Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

Is it possible for advanced nations to have compassionate migrant and asylum policies without providing incentives to all those facing a dire situation in their badly governed homelands to head north with desperate dreams of a better life? Is it possible to defend both belonging and diversity in one hyper-mobile world connected by commerce and communication?

In The WorldPost this week, we address these conundrums that have reached a boiling point in Europe and the United States. They face twin crises as the new populist government in Italy has sought to close its doors by turning away a refugee rescue ship from its shores, while the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, which separated children from their parents arrested after crossing the border, was only tempered after a firestorm of moral condemnation.

“To be human means to be able to feel at home somewhere, with your own kind,” the great pluralist philosopher Isaiah Berlin posited in a conversation we had at the end of the Cold War, when revived national sentiments were stirring in the thaw. “If the streams dry up … where men and women are not products of a culture, where they don’t have kith and kin and feel closer to some people than to others, where there is no native language — that would lead to a tremendous desiccation of everything that is human.”

The scale of today’s mass migrations and asylum pleas challenge Berlin’s definition of cultural pluralism. By the early years of the 21st century, it has come to mean something quite different: tolerance for and integration with the culture of incoming migrants and refugees rather than preservation of a way of life distinct from that of others. But if belonging to a unique way of life among kith and kin with common memories is what it means to be human, as Berlin says, how can these two ideas of cultural pluralism be reconciled?

This question of identity is at the heart of the clash between nativist populism and globalizing liberal culture that has erupted in the heart of the West. It is the emotional crux of the matter that is fueling the response to the steady stream of refugees as well as to immigrant flows generally.

Any realistic resolution to this challenge must start with the recognition that open societies require defined borders; otherwise, the social contract that binds societies within will fray. Every nation has the right to control its borders and decide who joins its community and takes advantage of its welfare and education systems with the expectation they will abide by its norms, contribute to the economy and pay taxes for the benefit of all. If the rules don’t work or are hollow — or can’t even be agreed upon — walls will go up in their place.

This is what we are witnessing today both in European nations, with historically defined identities, as well as in the United States, founded on an immigrant narrative.

Former Italian prime minster Matteo Renzi admits that Italy has in recent years borne the brunt of the refugee crisis, “saving Europe’s honor in the Mediterranean” by taking on new arrivals who land there, while other European nations block them from moving on. While the new populist government has exploited this situation, for Renzi, the blame — and resolution —  lies with Europe as a whole.

“Europe must invest in Africa, where lately China has done a great deal more than the old continent has,” he writes from Florence. “To handle the migration flows, it is necessary to cut European funding to member states — such as some in Eastern Europe — that do not welcome migrants: solidarity that characterizes European finances must be matched with solidarity in our welcome.”

David Miliband, the former British foreign secretary and now president of the International Rescue Committee, agrees that “it is unfair and short-sighted to expect Italy, Greece and Spain to be responsible for all those who make it to the E.U. All E.U. countries must commit to sharing this responsibility.”

His solution: “First, E.U. leaders must finally reach a sensible compromise on the reform of the so-called ‘Dublin regulation,’ which in its current form dictates that the European country where refugees and asylum seekers first arrive is the country which must take responsibility for them.”

Second, he argues for “an effective refugee resettlement program. This involves the organized and planned transfer of refugees to a safe country, as opposed to leaving them to find their own way to safety.”

Third, Miliband contends that “asylum seekers and refugees have legal rights that go beyond those for whom home is safe but undesirable. But legal economic migrants have long been part of the fabric of Europe’s history, and many European countries suffer from a demographic challenge that requires more migration, not less. The commitment of the E.U. to a new entry/exit system for all those entering or leaving the continent makes sense. So does its commitment to the economic development of its neighbors to the south and east. These are not quick fixes, but they are the right fixes.”

Turning to the United States, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has proposed legislation that would prohibit the separation of children from their parents as their requests for asylum are considered. But she, too, looks to a broader solution.

“Immigrants seeking to escape these conditions are desperate, and if we don’t help make their countries safer, no policy will prevent them from coming here,” the California senator writes. “Many view the choice to remain in their country or flee as a choice between life and death. We can start by helping Central American countries to stabilize living conditions. At the very least, the State Department should become more active with the governments of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to help improve their governance and address internal conflicts that lead so many children and families to flee their homes.”

Though media attention at the moment is concentrated on Europe and the United States, the vast majority of refugees in the world are in neighboring countries of the global South. Writing from Bangladesh, James Lynch focuses on the “safe and dignified return” of the Muslim Rohingya to their homeland in Myanmar through a path to citizenship — and all the rights that go with it — in that predominantly Buddhist society.

Since many refugees will spend long spells outside their countries, Alexander Betts and Paul Collier propose ways to make refugee camps more self-reliant. The model they see is the Kalobeyei settlement of mostly Somalis and South Sudanese in northwest Kenya. This settlement offers cash assistance, has planned markets and allocates plots of land for subsistence agriculture.

Finally, Olivia Quinn looks to the Muslim practice of zakat, or alms-giving, to help close the funding gap for international aid to refugees. “Creating a unified zakat collection and tracking system across countries, religious institutions and nongovernmental organizations,” she writes, “could help solve the growing refugee crisis. A transparent, globally accessible system would allow clear estimation and distribution of zakat funds.”

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.