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Philosophy and migration

How do philosophers respond to current migration issues? A brief interview with Julian Nida-Rümelin, professor of philosophy and former Federal Government commissioner.

© dpa/Uwe Zucchi - Julian Nida-Rümelin

Professor Nida-Rümelin, the refugee crisis has been accompanied by a certain crisis of orientation. Can philosophy be of any assistance to politicians?

Philosophy can't take on the role that was once played by priests. As a discipline, I don't think it has the resources to determine what is right or wrong in each individual case; this also applies to refugee policy. But philosophy is the discipline of clear thinking, coherent concepts and logical conclusions. So it can help in some respects. It can contribute to clarification, also in the ethical evaluation of refugee policy. That is why this summer I began writing a book on the 'Ethics of Migration', which will be published at the time of the spring book fair.

We evidently have two irreconcilable positions here: representatives of the first position base their ideas on a global right to freedom of movement, representatives of the opposing side on a legitimate right of nation states to establish rules and thus limit – at their own discretion – access for third parties. What does your 'Ethics of Migration' have to say on this?

It's a fact that we have the advocates of open borders, usually known as representatives of cosmopolitanism (or universalism), on the one hand, and defenders of the legitimacy of state borders on the other; in English-speaking countries the latter are quite impartially called 'nationalists' or 'communitarists'. I see myself as a representative of cosmopolitanism, i.e. the hypothesis that, beyond the nation states, there are binding, common standards and values with human rights at their core. I am sceptical about the communitarist (let alone nationalist) definition of the state, although at the same time I defend the legitimacy of state borders.

"I see myself as a representative of cosmopolitanism, but at the same time I defend the legitimacy of state borders."

Strangely, the political left, from Marxists to social liberals, use an argument that is familiar from neo-liberal, or rather free-market ideology. It states that the market is the best of all regulatory models. Whether consciously or unconsciously, they argue in favour of establishing a global free market, not only of goods and services, but also of labour. However, a global labour market without state borders would undermine – or at least jeopardize – collective self-determination in the form of nationally organized democracies. An unrestricted global labour market is incompatible with developed social standards and would further impoverish the poorest regions of the world, since they would lose their most productive people to richer regions. In my view there is a – cosmopolitan – interest and a universal ethical justification for the legitimacy of state borders and for the fundamental right of states to control immigration. At the same time, however, there are obligations based on human rights to provide assistance to vulnerable people (Geneva Convention). Protection for refugees from war and civil war should preferably be granted by the neighbouring countries – financed by the international community of states until the cause of conflict, war or civil war has been overcome. However, it is premature to make an automatic connection between granting such protection, based on human rights and ethics, and the prospect of integration. It is appropriate to take people in with the aim of integrating them (into the labour market, into society, also culturally) as soon and as completely as possible if they have a prospect of long-term or permanent residence. This – hopefully – does not usually apply to civil-war refugees.

In concrete terms: what ethical conditions should a sensible migration policy follow? What ethical obligations can be formulated?

I can only give you a few essential points in the short time available here. To begin with a central ethical, philosophical problem, the refugee issue poses an ethical dilemma for states. In principle, they have an obligation to treat people equally, according to the amount of assistance they require. We must treat and respect those who seek protection at our borders as human beings in the same way as we treat the local population. What this means in detail, e.g. concerning the right to social welfare, has been laid down in a judgement by Germany's Federal Constitutional Court. Yet at the same time, states have a moral obligation – within the cooperation structure of world society – to help especially those who are most in need of the help. However, only a tiny percentage (if any) of the bottom billion – i.e. the poorest billion of the world's population who have to live on as little as about one euro of purchasing power per day – even make it to the borders of Europe or North America.

"If our assistance concentrates primarily on those who make it to our borders, we will be neglecting those whom we could help with far fewer financial resources."

Transcontinental migration is not usually an option for the poorest of the poor. So if our assistance concentrates primarily on those who make it to our borders, we will be neglecting those whom we could help with far fewer financial resources. The World Bank has calculated that a half percent of the gross world product would be enough to raise the entire world population over the threshold of two US dollars purchasing power per day. Half a percent of the gross world product to put an end to the bitter hardship of almost a third of the world's population! This leads us to high-priority ethical obligations towards those who are worst-off and, in my eyes, to good reasons to be sceptical – from the angle of the fight against poverty – about transcontinental, poverty-driven migration. Furthermore, the sheer numbers of the world's poorest make it impossible to alleviate their hardship in this way, at least to the required extent. A sensible migration policy must distinguish between the very different motives and types of migration. Germany has neglected to pass an immigration law enabling an immigration policy that does justice to the interests of both the host country and the regions of origin. In my opinion, migration in the interests of the host countries (and this interest undoubtedly exists, especially in view of demographic population shrinkage and the considerable shortage of skilled workers) should only be allowed if the disadvantages for the regions of origin (e.g. brain drain) are offset. By contrast, when it comes to refugees fleeing from war or civil war, the best policy is not transcontinental migration, but to support the countries neighbouring the respective conflict region, so as to enable them to take in large numbers of refugees in decent conditions for a limited period of time. In the case of poverty-driven migration, on the other hand, assistance should be primarily provided on the spot, via fair trade agreements, e.g. with the African countries, and by supporting local economic and specifically agricultural structures. In such situations, transcontinental migration usually worsens hardship in the respective countries instead of mitigating it.

You yourself have had experience in politics, as Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media in Gerhard Schröder's first cabinet. Can we manage this?

I am very confident that Germany will be able to cope with the great wave of immigration we saw in the last four months of 2015 and the first two months of 2016. But, as part of an honest appraisal of the situation, we must also concede that even a rich country like the Federal Republic of Germany would have been overtaxed in the long term if the flow of refugees had continued on this scale. We must not give people the impression that the government is at a loss or helpless, and has no way of controlling refugee movements and the country’s borders. It was this impression, not so much the real challenges, that strengthened right-wing populism, not only in Germany but throughout Europe. So my answer is a short one: yes, we can manage it, especially because so many people in Germany have been – and still are – willing to volunteer their help. The authorities would clearly have been overwhelmed if they had been left to manage on their own. But the second message must be that open borders are not the answer to world poverty. There are other, better and more effective ways to make our world a fairer place.

The book 'Ethik der Migration' (Ethics of Migration) will be published in March 2017 by Edition Körber.

World Philosophy Day on 17 November 2016