It’s Not Racist to Worry About Immigration

Europe must not disparage those who worry that immigration is changing their societies too much.

Muslim women shop at a market in Berlin, Germany, February 20
Muslim women shop at a market in Berlin, Germany, February 20 (Konrad Lembcke)

As record numbers of asylum seekers reach Europe this year, the left can be quick to dismiss honest concerns about immigration as xenophobic. This is unfair and doesn’t help foster a consensus for how best to cope with the high influx of people from the Balkans, the Middle East and North Africa.

It is far from clear if societies benefit from immigration. The consensus among economists seems to be that they do — but they often only consider the effects on employment and growth.

Immigrants are also more likely to be on welfare while their descendants show up disproportionately in many countries’ crime statistics. Parts of Europe’s major cities have been ghettoized by the influx of foreigners. And most nonnatives don’t share the liberal values of their new home countries.

Immigration may be a boon to the economy but there are clear downsides as well.

Proponents of free migration tend to overlook or belittle these problems and argue that no life is less valuable than others, so Europe should let in everyone fleeing from depravation or violence.

Most Europeans mean well and want to open their doors to refugees. But not all asylum seekers are equal while immigration affects a society no matter the motives of those coming in.

There are bigots everywhere and some of the resistance to immigration is ill-informed or informed by prejudice. But there are also plenty of well-intentioned Europeans who just worry that their society is changing too much.

Ignoring their fears won’t make them go away. Disparage them as racist and you may end up radicalizing decent people. If mainstream political parties don’t manage to respond to the anxieties of their voters and prioritize the interests of asylum seekers instead, they shouldn’t be surprised if some people flock to the extremes and others give up on politics altogether.

Migration is a complicated issue that has more than two sides to it. Europe needs leaders who recognize that there are no easy solutions. We can’t open the borders to everyone nor pull up the drawbridges of Fortress Europe. Refugees have rights — but so do the Europeans who are expected to shelter them, pay for their benefits and see their neighborhoods change as a result.

Europe is their land. And although no one chooses where they are born, it is no historical coincidence either that some parts of the world are nicer than others. They tend to be those parts where nations have created states for themselves.

Advocates of free migration may be taking the advantages of the nation states they live in for granted.

The nation state satisfied people’s craving for stability and a sense of belonging. To be part of a group that speaks the same language and shares the same values makes people feel safe. It facilities economic growth and helps a healthy democracy develop.

The more diverse a society, the less implicit trust there is to make (business) deals. Multiethnic societies therefore need strong governing authorities to keep the peace.

In most cases, this leads to the dominant ethnicity lording over the others. Such is the case in China, where the Han constitute some 90 percent of the population, and in Russia, where ethnic Russians make up around 80 percent of the population.

In other cases, a minority manages to take power and keep it because it is seen by the others as a relatively neutral arbiter. This is one reason why the British were able to rule India, why the Austrians once ruled over most of Central Europe and why the Alawites could stay in power in Syria for so long.

But in all these cases, government is or was an authoritarian business. The ruling ethnicity enjoys all the privileges of power while the rest of the population is disenfranchised.

In multiethnic democracies, it’s not all that different. Westerns may find it less disconcerting because the supremacy of one ethnic group is legitimized by elections. But if you’re a Balochi living in Pakistan or a Kurd living in Turkey or a Moluccan living in Indonesia, you may be less likely to think of elections as a way to influence the way you are governed and rather see them as an instrument of your subjugation.

Places like Bosnia and Herzegovina and Northern Ireland have circumvented this dilemma with complicated power-sharing arrangements that theoretically satisfy all groups. But the price is often gridlock and persistent intolerance toward the other.

Where people vote along ethnic or national lines, elections are little more than head counts. In a healthy democracy, people vote according to their interests or their ideology and they can only afford to do so in a society that is relatively homogenous or has successfully assimilated immigrants.

Those societies are also less corrupt because there’s no need to arrange special deals for members of one’s own group. They tend to be more peaceful because there is no inherent or lingering mistrust between races or religions.

For all these reasons, Europeans developed nation states and those nation states went on to become the freest and richest on Earth. You can’t blame the people living there for wanting to protect what they have.