Kenan Malik Knack 1I recently gave a long interview to Dutch journalist Marco Visscher about Brexit, migration, democracy, politics, being offensive, growing up in racist Britian, and not being in a Hollywood movie. It was published in the Belgian magazine Knack (and a shorter version in the Dutch paper Trouw). The interview has been translated from English to Dutch then (roughly) back to English, so may not read very coherently in places. I have edited it lightly. It was published in Knack under the headline Het ‘Europese migratiebeleid is ten diepste immoreel’ (‘European migration policy is deeply immoral’)

Naturally, the cosmopolitan Kenan Malik lives in London, the city in which about a third of the population was born abroad. The outcome of the referendum on the European Union still echoes like a sledgehammer. But the chaos and anarchy which many papers report is little in evidence in the Turkish coffeehouse in southeast London where we meet.

MARCO VISSCHER: I assume you are embarrassed by how xenophobic your countrymen have been revealed to be in the EU referendum?

KENAN MALIK: Why should I be? I am responsible for my actions, not for those of everyone in Britain. In any case, a rejection of the European Union is not necessarily a sign of xenophobia. Norway has voted against the EU and one would hardly call Norway more xenophobic or inward looking than, say, EU members such as Austria or Hungary. Internationalism is not about accepting the top-down structures of the EU. It is rather about the creation of pan-European solidarity built from the bottom up, to defend the peoples of Europe – and beyond – from the regressive policies of both nations states and of the EU.

MV: The Brexit camp has seized the referendum as a vote on immigration. Support for ‘Leave’ suggests at least a desire among many Britons to close the borders.

KM: That may be true, but it is not a uniquely British attitude. It is a sentiment felt and expressed much more widely. You can see it in France, Netherlands, Germany, Austria, in the United States.

MV: How would you describe that sentiment?

KM: There is a growing dissatisfaction with the established political parties. One of the great changes in recent political history has been the erosion of the old ideological divisions that characterized politics for a long time. Differences between the parties have become much smaller. Politics is no longer a fierce debate about competing visions of social change; it is more an exercise in technocratic management.

MV: But there is still a difference between left and right?

KM: In the sense that I am still on the left, yes. But the great political divide, in Britain, right across Europe, in America, too, is not between left and right, or between social democracy and conservatism, as it was for most of the twentieth century. It is rather between those who feel at home in a globalized, technocratic world, or at least are prepared to accommodate themselves to it, and those who feel left out, dispossessed, voiceless. Many sections of the electorate, particularly many working class sections, see mainstream political organizations as remote and indifferent to their concerns. Many have been drawn towards populist groups, such UKIP in Britain, National Front in France and the PVV in the Netherlands, as they seem to them the only parties giving them a voice.

MV: Those are precisely the parties that celebrate Brexit as their own victory.

KM: Yes, populist and far right-wing parties have often been able to speak to that constituency, in large part because the parties of the left have failed to address the pressing issues of their traditional supporters. Hence, many people have turned to populists who seemingly address their girievances better.

MV: And blame ethnic minorities, immigrants and refugees for everything.

KM: Yes. And falsely. The problems faced by working class communities are the result of a mix of social and economic changes – such as the decline of manufacturing industry, the crumbling of the welfare state, the coming of austerity, the atomization of society, the growth of inequality – and political changes, including the transformation of social democratic parties and the erosion of trade union power. Immigration has played almost no part in fostering these changes. It has, however, come to be the means through which many perceive these changes, the symbol of unacceptable change.

MV: But immigration still has something to do with rising unemployment, stagnant wages and proliferating crime?

KM: The relationship is complex, but most of the claims that immigration is responsible for higher unemployment or falling wages or rising crime are usually false.

Carte Blanche Kenan Malik

MV: You think that immigration has nothing to do with the problems of people who do not feel heard and in Britain have voted for Brexit?

KM: I do, yes.

MV: So they have been misled by right-wing populists?

KM: It’s not so much a case of being misled as that immigration has for them become a symbol of unacceptable change. And that’s largely because of the way that the issue has been dealt with by both sides of the political spectrum over the last half century. Politicians have recognized the economic need for immigrants, but they have also always talked about immigration as a fundamental social problem. At the same time, politicians often express disdain for the masses whom many regard as deeply racist, and incapable of adopting a rational view of immigration. So, we have had a poisonous mixture of necessity, fear and contempt, which has helped to stigmatize both migrants and the working class, and created popular hostility towards the liberal elite for ignoring their views on immigration.

MV: The criticism from the right is that the left is refusing treat immigrants as a ‘fundamental social problem’, as you claim.

KM: It is true that we’ve heard much hostile commentary on immigration from right-wing populists and from the Leave campaign during the referendum. But not only from rightwing populists or Leave campaigners. Politicians from the left and prominent figures from the Remain campaign have also contributed to creating a mood of hostility to immigration. Gordon Brown, when he became Labour leader and Prime Minister in 2007, spoke in a speech to the Labour Party conference of Labour policy as being ‘British jobs for British workers’, a slogan that in the 1970s and 1980s was pushed by organizations of the far right. It was David Cameron who led the campaign against ‘benefit tourism’, claiming that many EU migrants from eastern Europe came to Britain simply to claim welfare benefits even though the government’s own studies showed otherwise.

MV: At the same time Remainers were extremely critical of Leave slogans such as ‘I want my country back’.

KM: It was often derided as a hollow and meaningless slogan by Remain supporters. But for many sections of working class voters, whose world does seem to have been turned upside down by forces they could not shape, it was a sentiment that resonated deeply. The slogan also played to the feeling that immigrants or the European Union have changed society. The point is that there have been many developments that have changed society, sometimes for good, sometimes or bad, from the decline of manufacturing industry to the rise of consumerism, from the erosion of the power of traditional institutions such as the Church to the changing role of women in social life. Even if not one single immigrant had been allowed into Europe in the past fifty years, European societies would be very different today than they were then. But it is immigration that has become the primary symbol of change, and of unacceptable change.

Kenan Malik Knack 2

MV: You are a supporter of open borders. Why?

KM: I don’t think we should throw open all borders tomorrow. The question of whether or not one has open borders depends on circumstances and context. I oppose arbitrary restrictions on people, and am in favour of freedom of movement. I also think that many of the fears about the negative impact of open borders are misplaced. The idea for instance, that the whole world will simply walk in. An open door, as the writer and economist Philippe Legrain puts it, is usually a swinging door. People come when there is work, they leave when there isn’t. Ironically, the closing of borders often leads to the very problems that the closure was meant to solve.

MV: Can you give an example?

KM: When Spain joined the European Union in 1986, it had an open border with North Africa. Africans came for seasonal work and then returned home again. The open border worked fine. A condition for accession to the EU, however, was that Spain had to close the border. So, in 1991, Spain closed its North African border. That did not stop North Africans coming to Spain. But now they took to boats to smuggle themselves in. That was the actual beginning of the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. In May of that year the first bodies were washed up on Spanish beaches. And those that smuggled themselves into Spain did not return to North Africa – because if they had it would have been much more difficult to return – but stayed, and often brought their family. The ‘problem’ that many thought had to be solved by closing the border, was in fact in many ways created by border closure. Much the same is true, for instance, of the closure of the US-Mexican border.

MV: But open borders are still an invitation for terrorists?

KM: I am not opposed to checks on people coming into a country, just arbitrary restrictions on freedom of movement. Nor do I think we should simply wave in every known terrorist that wants to enter.

MV: The perpetrators of the attacks in Paris in November last year could return easily to Molenbeek

KM: Immediately after the Paris attacks the French authorities established border controls and road checks. But the terrorists who carried out the attacks were able to return to Belgium because they were allowed through those road blocks and border checks. The problem was not the absence of borders, but the absence of a functioning system of police and information coordination.

MV: Everyone would surely come our way if the borders were open?

KM: That’s always the fear, and it’s not justified. When Spain had an open border to Africa, did the entire African continent decide to move to in? Has everyone in East European countries such as Poland, Romania and Bulgaria moved to Western Europe, even though they could, as EU citizens, do so if they wished? The vast majority of people in the world don’t migrate, and the vast majority of those that do migrate, don’t want to come to Europe.

Kenan Malik

MV: There is great fear in Europe about the huge numbers of migrants.

KM: Yes there is. And the numbers are large. But we should put the numbers in context, and not exaggerate or speak of an ‘invasion’. In Europe last year there were around a million irregular migrants and refugees. There are around a million refugees in Iran alone. Even more in Pakistan. Turkey is home to more than two million Syrian refugees. One million migrants represent 0.2 percent of the entire population of the European Union. In Lebanon, refugees make nearly 20 percent of the population. The EU has recently signed an agreement with Turkey, to deport migrants and refugees back to Turkey. The logic of that agreement is that a country with only one-seventh of the population of the EU, and a much lower per capita gross national product, should take primary responsibility for the care of migrants and refugees, while the EU absolves itself of such responsibility.

MV: You find that wrong?

KM: Absolutely. It is immoral that poorer countries should bear the heaviest burden. If these countries had adopted the same stance as the EU, then there really would be a migrant crisis.

MV: How do we go forward from here?

KM: The dilemma we face 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. That dilemma exists not because the public is particularly drawn to immoral or unworkable policies, but because of the way that the immigration issue has been framed by politicians of all political hues in the past few decades. That’s why it’s so important to have a broad debate on the underlying issues and concerns.

MV: You want a wide-ranging debate, but in the meantime immigrants will continue coming to Europe. Why don’t you just say: Brussels should make migration rules more liberal right now?

KM: Because a more liberal immigration policy can only be implemented with public support. Without a democratic mandate a more open policy will not work. You have to convince people that liberal policies are right.

MV: I wish you luck with that.

KM: Why do you think it’s impossible? There is no iron law that says that people are opposed to immigration. They have become so partly because of the ways in which the debate has been framed. That’s why it’s important to have an open, public debate on the issue.

MV: More and more commentators and opinion leaders, such as Richard Dawkins and Slavoj Žižek, are claiming that ordinary people should not make decisions about complex subjects. Otherwise people will vote for Brexit or support Donald Trump.

KM: The elite idea that people have to be kept in check, because they are too impulsive, biased or irrational, is one that fundamentally undermines democracy. It is an argument that has a long history, going back to ancient Greece. It also echoes arguments from a century ago, from the period when the right to vote was extended to workers, women and blacks. Francis Galton, and other leaders of the eugenics movement, disapproved of extending the right to vote to people from ‘undesirable’ classes. They were convinced that societies would fail if ‘unfit’ people could have a say.

MV: Do you mean that in 2016 the critics are returning to eugenic ideas?

KM: Not in the sense of advocating sterilization of the unfit or a genetic programme to improve humanity. But the eugenics movements also expressed fear and contempt for ordinary people, and that is certainly echoed today. Many intellectuals profess verbal support for the idea of democracy, but seem to have a problem with it in practice. They accept democracy so long as it produces the right results. But anyone who argues that does not understand what democracy is.

MV: You were active in the fight against racism in the eighties. What exactly did it involve?

KM: I grew up in a very different Britain. Racism was woven into the fabric of society. Racism has not disappeared, of course, but the kind of vicious, in-your-face racism that defined Britain a generation ago is thankfully relatively rare. I have a vivid memory as a boy of 8 or 9 years old, getting on a bus, and the woman next to whom I sat deliberately getting up and sitting somewhere else instead – and not because I was a snotty schoolboy. That kind of overt racism was commonplace. Racist attacks, stabbings, firebombings – these were weekly events. In the 1980s, I was organizing street patrols in East London to protect Asian families from racist gangs, who were harassing them – smashing windows, throwing firebombs. We canvassed the local area to talk to people, build support, identify perpetrators. We often stayed in the homes of families being targeted, in anticipation of an attack.

MV: And what did you if there was such an attack?

KM: We confronted them, chased them away.

MV: With knives or guns?

KM: No, it was not a Hollywood movie. But there were regular confrontations.

MV: Why did you quit it? Racism has not disappeared, right?

KM: I never ‘quit’. But the issues that matter to me have become much broader. The experience of racism, and the struggle against it, introduced me to politics. Politics allowed me to move beyond the confines of anti-racism, beyond what came to be called identity politics, introducing me to a wider world of ideas and concepts. I began to realise that injustice was not simply something done to me. Politics opened my mind to concepts of a common humanity and universal rights. Increasingly, though, many on the left travelled the other way. They began to see universalist values as obsolete and dangerously naive. More and more, they abandoned a universalist perspective, embracing instead identity politics and the politics of multiculturalism.

Kenan Malik Knack 3

MV: Why do you see multiculturalism as a problem?

KM: First, we need to distinguish between the lived experience of diversity and multiculturalism as a political process. The experience of living in a society that’s less insular, more vibrant and more cosmopolitan is positive. As a political process, however, multiculturalism means something very different. It means forcing people into particular ethnic and cultural boxes, defining individual needs and rights by virtue of the boxes into which people are put, and using those boxes, rather than people’s needs, to shape public policy. Multiculturalism suggests that your origins should determine how the state should treat you. It means that people belonging to a minority group get lumped together and treated as if they constitute a homogeneous group. It also transforms the idea of equality, from the belief that everyone should be treated equally despite racial and cultural differences, to the insistence that people should be treated differently because of them.

Diversity within minority groups becomes ignored. We tend to sideline progressive voices within minority communities and to look on reactionaries as if they expressed the authentic views of those communities. Naser Khader, a Danish member of parliament and a Muslim, tells of a conversation he had with a leftwing journalist, shortly after the controversy surrounding the Mohammed cartoons, ten years ago. The journalist claimed that ‘the cartoons insulted all Muslims’. When Khader responded that ‘I am not insulted’, the journalist told him he was ‘not a real Muslim’. From this supposedly ‘leftwing’ perspective, to be a Muslim you have to be reactionary.

We also have only a limited notion of diversity. We think of diversity largely in terms of culture, religion or ethnicity; many other forms of diversity – class, say, or gender, or age – are often ignored.

MV: But European societies used to be homogeneous until the coming of immigration.

KM: We have that image of European societies because we suffer from historical amnesia. We worry, for instance, about conflicts with Muslims and imagine their values are incompatible with Western values. But less than a hundred years ago there were exactly the same concerns about Catholics, especially in Northern Europe. Until the late nineteenth century Britain, for instance, had a whole series of laws that discriminated against Catholics because they were deemed unfit for a democratic society. There were similar sentiments in the USA after the Second World War, when it was faced with immigration from southern Europe. And, of course, in the eyes of many people, Jews constituted a mortal threat to European identity, values and ways of being, so much so that they became victims of the world’s greatest genocide.

Europe was rent not just by religious and cultural but by political conflict, too. From the English civil war to the Spanish civil war, from the German Peasants’ rebellion to the Paris commune, European nations were deeply divided. Even the perception today that Europe was racially and ethnically homogenous, was not how Europeans of the time looked upon their societies. In the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, the working class and the rural poor, for instance, were seen by many as racially distinct. So, the idea that Europe was homogeneous but has been made plural by mass immigration is wrong.

MV: How should we deal with all the different cultures in our society?

KM: We should look upon diversity positively. Diversity is important, not in and of itself, but because it allows us to expand our horizons, to compare and contrast different values, beliefs and lifestyles, make judgments upon them, and decide which may be better and which may be worse.

MV: But does this not lead to tension and conflict?

KM: Ideological and cultural clashes can be useful. They allow us to engage in political dialogue and debate that can, paradoxically, help create a more universal language of citizenship. The trouble with multiculturalism, as a way of managing diversity, is that it can shut down social engagement, insisting in the name of respect or tolerance, that one should not offend others or even criticize their deeply-held values. Hence, multiculturalism undermines precisely that which is good about diversity. If you believe that diversity is good, you also have to defend freedom of expression and expand it as broadly as possible.

MV: Many people believe that in a plural society racist or offensive comments should be censored. How do you see that?

KM: I think that it is precisely because we live in a plural society that we need the fullest extension possible of free speech. In a plural society, it is both inevitable and important that people should be able to offend others. The boundary of free speech lies, for me, only at direct incitement to violence.

MV: Why do you think is useful to give offence?

KM: Any kind of social change or social progress means offending some deeply held sensibilities. The importance of free speech is that it provides provides a challenge to the idea that some questions are beyond contention, and hence acts as a challenge to authority. Once we give up the right to offend in the name of ‘tolerance’ or ‘respect’, we constrain our ability to confront those in power, and therefore to challenge injustice. That is why it is minorities who suffer most when freedom of expression is curtailed.

MV: Why?

KM: Because the idea that certain things cannot be said is a way protecting those with power from having their power challenged. To accept that certain things cannot be said is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be challenged. If we impose restrictions on free speech, ostensibly to protect vulnerable groups, we  actually limit the ability of these  groups to challenge those in power and their ideas.

MV: How did you vote in the referendum?

KM: I abstained.

MV: Why?

KM: Because neither side addressed the underlying issues. One side ignored the democratic deficit, the other pushed immigration as the cause of our social problems. In my view, the European Union is a deeply undemocratic institution. But for Britain, or for any other nation, simply to leave the EU will not solve the democratic deficit. The problems run much deeper.

MV: You don’t find that ironic?

KM: What should I find ironic?

MV: You complain of a democratic deficit but you do not vote in the referendum.

KM: The right to vote does not mean one has to vote. Abstention is as much part of the democratic process as is voting for one side of the other, so long as you can make a case for doing so. And democracy is not just about voting, but also about having a robust, public debate. That is what, I hope, I am engaged in.


  1. As always, an interesting post by Malik.

    “It is immoral that poorer countries should bear the heaviest burden. If these countries had adopted the same stance as the EU, then there really would be a migrant crisis.”

    And perhaps it is immoral. But before we assess responsibility for easing the migrant crisis we should examine for a moment just why the migrant crisis exists. The Middle East has been an economically stunted, socially conservative, tribally-based society for centuries. Western exploitation of mineral resources and political exploitation of the various kingdoms and semi-democracies has certainly done little to improve the situation. Power elites in the nations of the ME have in turn used whatever leverage they’ve had with the West to feather their own nests and have done precious little to improve the lot of their people. Islam has been used draw attention away from temporal privations and as the ultimate goad for wars: doing the will of god.

    Now, in a paroxysm of internecine slaughter fueled by appeals to religious zeal, millions want to flee. Theirs is not an aspirational flight to freedom and democracy and enlightenment. Theirs is a flight from bloodshed and grinding poverty. Theirs is not the quest to become good Germans or Danes or Swedes; they bring with them the narrow conservatism of a religious superstition that is fundamentally at odds with Western liberal principles. That is not to say that there are not diaspora Muslims who have found a balance between their faith and the modern world. There are. But those are often generational changes. Assimilating millions who are not immigrating for aspirational reasons in a short period of time is guaranteed to be, at a minimum, disruptive to the host country.

    It can be argued that societal disruption is the price to be paid for a century of Western meddling. But what is that price really buying for the immigrants? In France it buys them a bare subsistence in ghettos. The immigrants make little effort to assimilate and the French do not recognize them as wishing to assimilate. They remain foreign enclaves of poverty and despair.

    The problem isn’t millions of Middle Easterners desperately striving to become Europeans. The problem is Middle Easterners trying to escape brutalization by other Middle Easterners. The solution is not so much preventing immigrants from entering Europe as it is stopping the slaughter that drives them to wish to leave.

  2. jswagner

    This fellow was a great interviewer, not afraid to ask pointed, “dumb” questions; some of your most important themes are summarized very well. You’re getting to good elevator pitches on these themes, which is lovely, because Gawd knows it’s going to have to be 20 seconds or less to break through. I was especially gratified at his ‘I wish you good luck with that’ and your simple response re what we have to do to respond correctly on immigration. Ultimately, all we really have in the fight against xenophobia is a lot of stark, clear data, and we have to keep pointing at it, as well as fleshing it out with human examples, the classic narratives of our immigration roots. The urgency of recognizing that immigration has always been at the heart of our success as western nations. Remember that this is about the left’s inability to recognize and address the underlying economic stagnation and lack of representation/responsiveness.

    While I think your multiculturalism/identity politics point is well-drawn, it’s quite high-level; we on the left are not providing visceral arguments that are refined and clear enough yet. Good people fuck this up badly, particularly activists, I think because we’re still zeroing in on what’s the proper reaction to racism/ignorance, and what’s resentment and reactionary. I think those of us who experience both robust multiculturalism and the suffocating power of trenchant identity politics aren’t yet distinguishing them well enough for each other; we blithely cross that Maginot line, and recross it, while the far left and right overreact and misdiagnose. The rightists are getting at it from political correctness, which has its own distortions, but at least tells a fraction of the story well; on the left, our whole narrative tends to be confused, off-putting, and unrealistic. In my own challenges on that front, I try to focus on the mechanics of being tolerant with the supposedly intolerant, and tie it to a need to be an example of liberalism/universalism for them. I’ve been somewhat successful, but it’s quite gradual. Like the right, we need our bad guys to be bad, worthy of quick and summary condemnation.

    You defended your abstention implicitly by asserting your work in the public debate as an offset. Let me go one further, in defense of those who abstain not just from voting, but from public debate as well: we on the left are incoherent, provide little inspiration, and have only vague, distal expressions of solutions. Withdrawl from the political process, partially a sign of loss of solidarity, is mostly a reflection of a failure of leadership, which in turn is a failure to adhere to democratic values in the pursuit of money and power. I do wish we’d center our complaints about lack of participation more on natural, even healthy disaffection with our political process. And that we’d remember that that is mostly a critique of the left, since the left is supposed to be more about that representation.

  3. KM: The relationship is complex, but most of the claims that immigration is responsible for higher unemployment or falling wages or rising crime are usually false.

    I think many would beg to differ on this point, with extra competition undercutting plumber’s , decorators, and gardeners wages for example. Also there are many accounts of cheap labour exploitation and terrible working conditions, with mainly business and landlords loving the extra profits afforded by excess immigration.

    Some enterprising chaps ‘with Eastern European accents’ removed the newly installed lead flashing from the large communal roof keeping our block dry. The legitimate workers on that project were definitely cheaper to employ and easier to dismiss than they would have been several years ago. The council has also seen fit to squeeze a few new-build flats into our already overcrowded neighbourhood, where getting parked is already challenging enough sometimes. And flats are what get built in London as you know, meaning too many cars and rising pollution.

    Of course there are endless subtleties and complexities involved, but ultimately we watched the EU failed dogmatic ideology leave Remain holding a busted flush. The U.K. is much better than many give it credit for.

    It’s interesting that you abstained in response to both sides inadequacies. Personally, I read as extensively as possible and concluded the EU to be offering only and dangerously the abdication of our political response ability, and it is response ability married to account ability that will prove most important as things roll on. I wonder, did you spoil your ballot paper or simply not turn up? The latter, I guess. Lazy, in more ways than one, perhaps? (Said in good humour)

  4. Hans Odeberg

    “The experience of living in a society that’s less insular, more vibrant and more cosmopolitan is positive.” I completely agree. When I visited Britain as a young man, I became very envious of the many cultures and peoples I encountered in London, and could not wait for when I was old enough to migrate. Now I find that I no longer need to. The world has come to me, in Sweden, instead.

    There is one point that I would like you to elaborate a bit: the open borders. Yes, I agree, this is a good goal to strive for. But when you state that we need not worry, that the whole world will not want to move to Europe – is that true? In 2015, more than 160 000 people applied for asylum in Sweden. Compare that with the 38 000 arriving in the UK, and consider that the population in Sweden is 10 million. No, not the capital – the whole country. The rate of arrival caused the reception system to overflow, and eventually resulted in the socialist government closing the borders. We now have the wonderful catch-22 system of “yes, anyone entering Sweden is allowed to seek asylum, and get generous living allowances (compared to their countries of origin, at least) – but nobody is allowed to enter”.

    Why are so many coming to northern countries? You mentioned that countries like Turkey and Lebanon take a huge inflow of refugees – that’s true. Refugees that either live in tents in UN camps or have to find housing and jobs by themselves. Often they are not allowed to work or study, and can find only low-paying jobs. Worker’s rights, trade unions? Not likely. Contrast that with the situation if they are magically transferred to a european welfare state: food and housing is provided, education for the kids is free all through university, hospital care is almost free, if a job cannot be found government subsidies will at least sustain a living. No wonder they pay smugglers exorbitant fees and risk dying of drowning on the way here.

    What is your solution for us? Should we open the borders and abandon the welfare state, thus making it less attractive to move here? Or should our taxpayers take the load of hundreds of thousands who have no chance of ever getting a job in our high-skilled labour market? I suspect those left behind by globalization will not cheer at the latter alternative.

    • Hans, what I actually said was that ‘I don’t think we should throw open all borders tomorrow. The question of whether or not one has open borders depends on circumstances and context’ and that ‘a more liberal immigration policy can only be implemented with public support. Without a democratic mandate a more open policy will not work’. Whether you disagree with that, I don’t know.

      It is true that Sweden has taken a large number of asylum seekers, the highest figure in Europe relative to its population. It is also true that this has caused major problems. Nevertheless the fact that 160,000 asylum seekers came to Sweden last year is not evidence that ‘the whole world will want to move to Europe’. In global terms, migration to Europe is small and falling. The idea that ‘people ‘pay smugglers exorbitant fees and risk dying of drowning’ simply because they look forward to living off benefits is, let us just say, dubious.

      The proportion of immigrants in a country unemployed varies hugely globally. It is relatively low in the USA, Switzerland, Canada, Germany and Norway. It is relatively high in Ireland, France, Belgium and Sweden. It is exceptionally high in Spain and Greece. There appears to be little correlation with mass migration and the presence or otherwise of a generous welfare state. It’s worth noting that, from a global perspective, the
      OECD suggests
      that ‘the impact of the cumulative waves of migration that arrived over the past 50 years in OECD countries is on average close to zero, rarely exceeding 0.5% of GDP in either positive or negative terms… Immigrants are thus neither a burden to the public purse nor are they a panacea for addressing fiscal challenges. In most countries, except in those with a large share of older migrants, migrations contribute more in taxes and social contributions than they receive in benefits.’ The report adds that ‘Contrary to widespread public belief, low-educated immigrants have a better fiscal position – the difference between their contributions and the benefits they receive – than their native-born peers. And where immigrants have a less favourable fiscal position, this is not driven by a greater dependence on social benefits but rather by the fact that they often have lower wages and thus tend to contribute less.’

      • Hans Odeberg

        I think we can agree that a good vision to work towards is a world with free movement of capital, goods and people, and that there are obstacles to achieving this today. Maybe this is not the time to mention Brexit…

        Where I think you take a wrong turn is in this quote: “…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 does not match my Swedish experience. Last year the socialist PM organized “Welcome refugees” rallies, and stated emphatically that “Sweden will never build walls”. Backed by media and voters. Then, a couple of months later, reality hit us in the face and the borders were sealed. While the open borders were moral, they were not workable. One may also question the morality of the open borders – they meant we took resources from the foreign aid used to fund the refugee camps in Lebanon to spend on the few who had the money and strength to dare the journey to Sweden.

        From my narrow swedish perspective, I do not think the current obstacle for a more liberal immigration policy is public support. The support is there. What is lacking is the means to carry it out. We need housing reform so that houses get built faster. We need job market reforms to get more jobs. We need education reforms so that immigrants can be adapted to our job market. We need time to get the decided actions implemented (training teachers takes a while…). And, as the left and right do not agree on the right way to move forward, we need time for a long political squabble about the whats and hows. The strength and weakness of democracy.

        I agree that everybody does not want to go to Europe. A few will go to the US, too. No, seriously. What I do think is that, as Africa prospers and the Middle East implodes enough people will be affluent enough or desperate enough to make open borders a tough proposal.

        About migrants coming to welfare states to live off benefits: no, I do not think that the sole aspiration of the migrants is to sit in an overcrowded flat in the seediest part of town living off a minimum wage doled out by the local social security office. But let’s flip the coin: reality teaches us that a large part of the migrants coming to Europe did not stop in Turkey or Greece, but walked all the way up to the nordic countries. Why?
        Let me put myself in their shoes. I’m sitting in a UN camp in Turkey with my family. I have shelter (a leaky tent) and enough food to survive. That’s it. Turkey will not let my kids go to university. Turkey will not let me find a job anywhere near my qualifications, all that’s open to me is illicit manual labour. I and my whole family is in a situation with no future. IS show no indication of going away, and if they do, there are twenty other terrorist groups ready to take on the title of “Islamist baddie of the month”.
        The things that could attract me to risk my life to go to Sweden are:
        * Free education. My children will grow up to be doctors and engineers instead of manual labourers. I would risk a lot for that.
        * A safety net. Yes, I will want to get a job so I get a decent wage and can afford to live in a decent area. But if I fail, Sweden will provide for me in the meantime. I can also get my education funded, increasing the chances of getting a good job. Staying in Turkey, I would have to beg or steal for food.
        * Greater chance of staying. Some countries offer a better chance of actually being granted asylum.
        * Family and friends. If people I know already live in a European country, that’s where i want to go, so I can use their contacts to find jobs, housing etc.

        Thus we do not need to assume that migrants are lazy benefit-scroungers to explain the incentive to come to the welfare states.

        Sadly, what the previously refugee-welcoming nations now see themselves forced to do is to remove the above “pull factors” – making it difficult to get asylum, cutting benefits for asylum seekers, etc.

  5. Mischa Moselle

    Kenan, please could you elaborate on your decision to abstain? (I’m firmly in the Leave camp due to the EU’s authoritarianism and Fortress Europe.)

    • Mischa, I wrote a series of articles round the time of the referendum (Beyond the Brexit debate, The revolt of the fragments, Britain, Europe and the real crisis) that set out my argument as to why neither side were taking seriously the deeper problems that we face. In the first of those articles, I concluded:

      Neither side in the debate has been willing properly to consider the real issues at the heart of the Brexit debate. Remain campaigners have largely sidestepped concerns about democracy. And when they have addressed the question of immigration, it has largely been to accept the concerns of Leave campaign…


      It is true that, in the slogan of the Remain camp, we are ‘Better Together’. But ‘Better Together’ does not mean supporting the institution of the EU. It means supporting the people of the EU – and beyond; supporting, for instance, the people of Greece against EU-enforced austerity, and of migrants against the imposition of Fortress Europe.


      Leave supporters, on the other hand, have not so much addressed issues of democracy and immigration as exploited them in an opportunistic, and often reactionary, fashion. In reducing the problem of democracy to the bureaucratic structures of the EU, they have ignored the broader shifts in politics and the economy that have left large sections of the electorate feeling politically voiceless, and which will not be addressed simply by leaving the EU. In conflating democracy and national sovereignty, and promoting border controls as the key expression of sovereignty, they have advanced a narrow, divisive notion of democracy…


      Whatever the result on Thursday, neither popular disaffection with mainstream political institutions, nor the sense among large sections of the electorate of being politically voiceless, is likely to subside. Nor will it until we begin to address directly the reasons for that disaffection.

      What was important, in my view, was to open a debate on those underlying issues, and to the challenge arguments of both sides, rather than putting an X in a box.

  6. atheist44

    Hi Kenan,
    I have two comments:
    1) “economic need for immigrants“
    You don’t really distinguish between different types of migrants. In Sweden it takes a refuge on average seven years to find a job. No economy in the world needs people that are unemployed for seven years (i.e. living on benefits) and usually of low qualification.
    2) “But it is immigration that has become the primary symbol of change, and of unacceptable change.”
    Migration has caused unacceptable political change. The immigration of Protestants to Northern Ireland has led to a civil war (a war that could easily reignite). The migration to Europe and the US has led to the massive rise of right wing parties and to a massive reduction of civil liberties. And just because these effects are caused indirectly does not mean you can neglect them.
    You may say that these problems could be solved but you migration proponents had decades to solve them without any success.

    • Hans Odeberg

      Some comments on the Swedish employment statistics:

      To say that it takes seven years on average to find a job, is a bit misleading. It could lead one to think that “Great, after 7 years they all have jobs”. Unfortunately, what the figure means is that 7 years after arriving, 50% still have no job. And the figure does not rise much more after that – I think about 30-40% *never* get a job. Which puts a burden on the welfare state.

      To make things even worse, we can go to the central bureau of statistics and read their definition of being employed. Full-time employment? Nope. One – *one* – hour per week is all it takes to be employed. State-subsidised employments are also considered as being employed. There are schemes in place where the state pays 80% of the immigrant’s salary in the beginning.

      To clarify how many of the immigrants actually become contributing taxpayers, an MP asked the parliamentary investigative services (“riksdagens utredningstjänst”, in Swedish) to provide statistics for how many that had full-time non-subsidized employment. The result: after 8 years 25% have full-time employment. After 15 years, 34% have a full-time job.

      The consequences for the welfare state are fairly obvious. It is not surprising that local councils are beginning to warn its constituents about taxes going up a couple of percent, and that politicians are beginning to talk about rasing the pension age beyond 65 years.

      • The obvious reasons for upward pressure on retirement age are that people are living longer, and (a smaller effect, I suspect) that more people are staying in education longer. If you claim that immigrants’ welfare is also a significant component, perhaps you could justify this, e.g. by comparing spending on immigrant welfare with total pension costs.

        • Hans Odeberg

          Good point. Immigration is not the only thing putting a burden on the (welfare) state. As you mention, longer life (a good thing!) and more education (another good thing!) means we get more output and less input (unless more education results in higher-paying jobs and thus higher payments into the system). There is also the problem that young people who do not study do not manage to find jobs. There is also the problem that high unemployment rates means fewer contribute. So even with zero immigration, the pension system is still strained. Immigration is just one of many factors.

          With large immigration, we statistically get a lower percentage of contributors. The swedish job market is, thanks to diligent work by strong unions and socialist governments, focused on productive, high-paying jobs. The low-paying “McJobs” that can be taken by unskilled workers are very few. Thus, many immigrants, as the statistics show, never find jobs. Which means the relative number of people paying to the pension system will go down. There are currently three approaches to this problem:
          * The socialists want to provide education to immigrants so they become employable. One problem with this is finding all the teachers – we have a teaching shortage already.
          * The right-wingers want to lower wages to levels where immigrants become employable. Problem: how will they then pay for high-cost housing? We do not want ghettos.
          * Our version of UKIP wants to send immigrants home. Problem: we currently do not have the capacity to send home those who the migration authorities state are not eligible for asylum. Now you want to send home people who are rooted in the country, who might be citizens? Seriously?

          Do I have concrete figures on what the immigrants’ load is on the pension system? No. What I have is this: during 2015, 160 000 people applied for asylum. We can expect a majority of them not to have jobs – but at the age of 65, they will get a state pension. For a population of 10 million, for that to go on year after year will have a noticable effect. So we either need to lower migration, or somehow match migrants with jobs. Right now, our socialist government is very actively doing the former, while talking about some time in the future doing the latter.

  7. Opabinia

    I usually agree with Malik, but something I understand not is when he says that reactionnaries are not the most representative people of their religions. They are! Religion is not science, is not something can know a progress or an advancement: it’s a revealed truth, good for the eternity. Why people who says things completely different from holy books has to be considered more representative than people who says exactly what’s written in those texts? Why, if S.Paul said that homosexuals have to go to hell, Christians who says that being gay is not different than being straight, have to be considered more near to “Christian truth” than fundamentalists?

    • The need for religion is this – Hard Times place great moral burdens upon us in a way that Good Times don’t. Hard Times – and the times we live in are getting harder in terms of insecurity, even if not yet in cash terms – force us to make a stark choice between good and evil (e.g. generosity v hatred, courage v fearfulness, calm v anger); in other words, Hard Times compel us to become either better people or worse people. (The Russian exile Pittirim Sorokin’s “Man and Society in Calamity” details many examples of this from history).

      And this is where true religion – genuine faith rather than bigotry, preachifying or fault-finding – comes into its own; or so those of us, who lack any great faith in the natural benevolence of human nature, believe.

      Many will deny this – they will say (or imply !) that wonderful people like them and their pals can be altruistic and good without the support of religious faith.

      But this is usually ivory tower thinking from the young and upwardly mobile or from members of the upper-middle class – that is, from people who haven’t yet been put to the test.

  8. Housing, Housing, Housing.

    Clearly, it is absurd – nearly criminal, in fact – to welcome, say, a million immigrants into a country without at the same time providing housing for a million more people.

    The failure to provide this extra housing is at the root of much of the anti-immigration sentiment. Everyone is agreed that we have a severe and worsening housing crisis, but nothing is done.

    Why ?

    Because most of the new housing must be affordable, at a time when public money to build it is in short supply.

    Again, because sanity demands building the new housing on brownfield sites (rather than destroying our dwindling supply of farmland and green spaces), but commercial considerations demand the opposite.

  9. Classism has in recent years become as great a scourge in Britain as racism.

    If it is wrong to hate and despise people on account of their race, it is no less wrong to hate and despise people on grounds of their class, because they are below one in the social pecking order.

    One has only to read the remarks of some in the Remain camp – remarks soaked in snobbishness, arrogant contempt, even vitriolic hatred, for those they imagine “inferior” to themselves – to realise that classism can be as loathsome and destructive as racism. And many “liberals” – cosmopolitan, smug and impatient of lesser mortals – are as guilty of it as any Tory.

    Classism – rooted in the right-wing revolution of the 1980’s – is getting worse. In Western nations that believe only in Money and Success, the Unforgivable Sins are poverty and failure. People will even go mad and vote for Trump in the hope of escaping them.

Comments are closed.