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Word of 2017: immigration

We have started a new year. What will be the words that will dominate 2017?

I thought I would start with ‘immigration’.

Three years ago, I wrote an article titled ‘Will immigration be the EU’s death knell?’ Things have moved on since then, and immigration has indeed become one of the issues straining the EU, though not quite to breaking point – yet.

Unfortunately, as with so many debates on difficult but important issues, this one has been reduced to two sides of an argument spitting sound bites at each other without much enlightenment emerging. Those who want to stop immigration and the flow of refugees make a direct link between immigration, security, competition for jobs and, they claim, a complete breakdown of the social order. Those who consider themselves liberal respond with cries of racism and xenophobia. None of this gets us anywhere.

The first thing to recognise is that how to deal with immigration and refugee flow is one of the most difficult political issues we are all facing. There are no easy answers. Those who call for totally closed borders are just as foolish as those who call for totally open ones. So, let us examine the issues.

Yes, it is likely that among the more than a million refugees that have entered the EU, a very few will have bad intent. They are radical fundamentalists who will attempt terrorist acts and will try to radicalise others. And sometimes they will succeed. But crime is a fact of life. The security services will do their best, but they cannot prevent every crime.

Should we allow new immigrant communities in our societies to opt out of liberal values and rights that have been hard fought for over the decades?

Yet pretending that the solution is to build a fortress Europe is neither practicable nor reasonable. It’s the equivalent of setting a curfew for all citizens after 6pm in order to prevent nighttime crime. Or to stop everyone from driving to prevent drink-driving. That’s not how free societies work.

As for the jobs argument, this is more difficult. Economists argue that immigration is a net positive for most European economies that must cope with an ageing population, lack of labour and skills and a native workforce that considers some types of jobs to be below them. Yet it is also true that some employers use immigrant labour to keep down wages and perpetuate poor working conditions.

The answer does not lie in shutting down immigration. It lies in better regulation (and enforcement) of conditions of work and better skills building through our education system.

The greatest challenge that mass immigration poses is to social cohesion. And it is here that those who think of themselves as liberal need to pause and think.

The reality is that no country that has had significant levels of immigration from fundamentally different cultures has managed to achieve effective integration. Ghettoisation is rampant. Humans are inherently tribal and form communities of like people.

True and comprehensive integration has not been achieved, except at the margins.

We also need to consider what it means to defend our liberal democratic values. Does it mean accepting everyone with open arms, even when newly formed communities continue to reject the fundamental tenets on which our liberal democracies are based?

Should we allow new immigrant communities in our societies to opt out of liberal values and rights that have been hard fought for over the decades: equal rights for women, universal education, acceptance of sexual preferences, the primacy of secular law enacted by elected governments over religious law and so forth? Or does being liberal mean defending those values and insisting that anyone who lives in our society needs to accept them and live by them?

Mass immigration and refugee flow are two of the biggest challenges we are facing. Those on both sides of the argument who pretend there are easy answers and whose only response is to hurl insults at those who take an opposite view do none of us any favours.

It is time that we had a mature debate where the advantages, disadvantages and moral imperatives surrounding people flows are discussed. Where the difficult issues are faced rather than ducked by pretending that they don’t exist. Nobody has ready-made answers. But I hope that in 2017, ‘immigration’ becomes a word around which we can start to have a serious and honest conversation and move away from the banality of slogans and sound bites – whichever side of the argument they come from.

Joe Zammit-Lucia is a trustee of radix.org.uk, a think tank for the radical centre, and co-author of The Death of Liberal Democracy?

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