Münster (upm/kn)
Reducing inequalities: solving problems of demographic change by means of more immigration is legitimate. But host countries should endeavour to improve the situation in the countries of origin.<address>© stock.adobe.com - Montri Thipsorn</address>
Reducing inequalities: solving problems of demographic change by means of more immigration is legitimate. But host countries should endeavour to improve the situation in the countries of origin.
© stock.adobe.com - Montri Thipsorn

A moral right to stay

Guest commentary: Can immigration alleviate the consequences of demographic change?

Should more immigration be allowed, not only to counter the threat of an ageing population in our society but also to help with the problem of a lack of skilled workers? Anyone advocating this strategy does not base their demand for more open borders on any moral rights which people wanting to immigrate may have – as predominantly happens in philosophical ethics – but on the interests which the host society has. There then follows a controversial discussion on whether society has aims which give rise to tensions vis-à-vis this strategy – in particular, whether national cultures should be protected. On the other hand, the question is generally ignored of whether the strategy of solving national problems through immigration is not shown in a questionable light as a result of the global context.

This strategy assumes great inequalities between the countries involved. If all countries found themselves in the same starting position, then every movement of migrants which solves problems in the target country would increase these same problems in the countries of origin. Seen as a whole, then, nothing would be gained. Also, the net migration rate in a world of countries with similar economic conditions would in any case be close to zero. It is only economic inequality between countries which creates a high degree of willingness to migrate from the less affluent countries to those which have a higher level of prosperity.

Dr. Matthias Hoesch<address>© private source</address>
Dr. Matthias Hoesch
© private source
Adherents of postcolonialism, who see western countries as being responsible for global inequality, are therefore – with some justification – able to suspect that there is a perfidious logic behind the strategy of solving problems through immigration. First the opposite number is placed in a bad situation, then this situation is exploited in order to solve problems at home. For this reason, should an easing of immigration with such a motive rather be dispensed with?

Deriving such a radical consequence from postcolonial criticism is not very convincing. After all, it is not plausible to maintain that making former colonies worse off for the sake of a problem-solving strategy was or is intended. It should rather be true that rich countries actively hamper the economic development of other countries in order recruit their workers. Also, we must not forget that migration often results in a win-win situation – and that if we dispensed with this, it would entail a high ethical cost.

However, from the criticism mentioned above it is certainly possible to draw the conclusion that the strategy of problem-solving through immigration may only be pursued if it can be ensured that it does not end up as exploitation of unjustified disadvantage. From an ethical point of view, therefore, the strategy is not improper in itself – but it must satisfy certain conditions.

Two groups of players are put at a disadvantage: on the one hand, the countries of origin; on the other hand, the potential migrants. Host countries are looking especially for well-trained workers. As a rule, though, the countries of origin have previously paid for the training. This means that the country of origin loses out because it doesn’t get the benefit of the labour of the people emigrating; and, in addition, the costs of their training turn out be an unprofitable economic investment because these people emigrate precisely because the countries of origin are worse off. Against this background, migration ethics experts propose that host countries should have to pay compensation to the countries of origin for any skilled workers who migrate in the wake of immigration schemes, and that such compensation should at least cover the training costs. If they don’t do this, they are unfairly exploiting the fact that the countries of origin are worse off.

If we consider not the countries of origin but the potential immigrants themselves, we can take another view and speak of an exploitation of their situation. Very few migrants migrate from a sense of adventure; as a rule, people prefer to stay in familiar surroundings. Many authors in the field of philosophy thus see a moral “right to stay” – i.e. a right to conditions which enable people to lead a good life in their homeland. If the strategy of solving demographic problems through immigration is directed at people whose situation in their home country produces, avoidably, a strong pressure to migrate, then this strategy exploits the fact that these people’s “right to stay” is not granted.

It would be wrong to conclude from this that such people should be forbidden to migrate – this would, after all, deprive them of further opportunities. The strategy of solving problems through immigration must, however, be supplemented by measures which aim at asserting the “right to stay”. Host countries must therefore make serious attempts to improve the situation in the countries of origin.

In principle, therefore, there can be no objections when economically successful countries want to use immigration to solve problems caused by demographic change. Such a solution is based, however, on the characteristics of an unjust global economic order, and so it must be accompanied by efforts to reduce these inequalities.

Author Dr. Matthias Hoesch is a philosopher who carried out research at the “Religion and Politics” Cluster of Excellence at the University of Münster.

This article was first published in the University newspaper “wissen|leben” No. 4, 1 June 2022.

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