Avoiding the Politicisation of Large-Scale Immigration

Unscrupulous politicians can win support by politicisation of large-scale immigration, and this is irresponsible

As people increasingly move around the world, whether they are driven by economic factors ( or as refugees from oppression, they have an impact on the neighbourhood they arrive in.  Some of the issues in managing immigration were described earlier in this chapter, in the context of pluralism and identity (6.7.4), but there are additional considerations with large numbers in a period of great social and economic change.

People are naturally concerned about immigrants: seeing them as taking jobs, needing houses and using public services such as health and education.  David Miller’s book, Strangers in our Midst: The Political Philosophy of Immigration, reviewed in Matthew Lister’s article Alien Ideas, argues that a country’s inhabitants have the right to control immigration and to decide what rights are to be assigned to the newcomers.  Lister partly agrees, but he points out that there are no easy solutions to the problems of deciding how many immigrants to admit and how to allow them to integrate.

Job losses can be caused by automation, globalisation or climate change – but it is too easy for populist demagogues to persuade people that immigrants are taking people’s jobs.  Politicians must communicate very carefully, showing that they understand the problems and are providing appropriate help, to avoid a rise in anti-immigrant sentiments.

In an egregious example of the politicisation of large-scale immigration, Donald Trump won the 2016 US presidential election with a strong anti-immigrant message.  He promised to “build a great wall” on the Mexican border, for example, and he described Mexican immigrants as drug dealers, criminals and rapists.  His language was offensive and despicable.  It helped him to attract white supremacists.

The destabilisation of the Middle East, largely caused by the disastrous errors in western foreign policy referred to earlier (6.7.7), has resulted in huge increases in the number of immigrants trying to reach Europe and the UK.  The problem is so large that it is being treated as a matter of urgently trying to seal the borders rather than trying to absorb the numbers involved.  Inevitably this crisis has been politicised and the migrants became pawns in a political game:

●  In what the BBC describes as the Belarus border crisis, President Lukashenko’s government has encouraged migrants (mainly from Iraq) to assemble on the Polish border – where border guards are pushing them back.  He wants Europe to negotiate with him, to reduce its economic sanctions against what has been internationally condemned as an illegal regime.  He sees the EU as an enemy, he is trying to destabilise it and he can portray it as uncaring.

●  Britain has problems with the politicisation of large-scale immigration.  A BBC article, The UK migrant dilemma – it’s all about Brexit, reminds readers that the British government had promised that Brexit ( would reduce the number of immigrants – yet it has spectacularly failed to do so.  Refugees have a right to asylum, but Britain wants them to register before they arrive in the country.  The huge delays in processing them have led to many people paying people-smugglers to take them illegally across the English Channel in small boats.  Some die in the attempt.  The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, proposed a deterrent to such traffic: a One-way ticket to Rwanda for some UK asylum seekers (BBC), which sharply divided political opinion.  As noted by the Economist, trying to make refugees Somebody else’s problem “could wreck the Refugee Convention”.  A more humane and useful proposal would have been to speed up the processing of refugees in Europe so that there is no need to make illegal crossings of the Channel (and possibly try to find employment for them).

Refugees from war cannot be repatriated and must be absorbed, but the number of people affected by climate change (6.7.5) is likely to be vastly greater.  The only possible response to that problem is to enable them to stay where they are, by providing the necessary international assistance.



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/6783.htm.