• “Seeing Things Their Way”: The Contemporary Immigrant Experience in Europe

  • By Dimitris Christopoulos | 22 Oct 09 | Posted under: Antiracism/Migration
  • Seeing things their way” is Quentin Skinner’s fundamental methodological exhortation. Skinner advances interpretations of specific political or moral beliefs by placing them in the context of other beliefs, the interpretation of political choices and systems of perceptions by locating them in broader intellectual contexts, and attempts understandings of these contexts in the light of the so-called “longue durée” in history.1

    The historical uncontrollability of immigration

    In university humanities departments, students who are taught courses on immigration are asked to familiarise themselves with two basic ideas concerning the immigrant phenomenon: its totality and diachronism.
    Immigration cannot be examined out-of-context. It is a total phenomenon, in the sense that it causes change in everything and among everyone: among the immigrants, but also among the natives, in both the originating and the receiving countries. Immigration modifies not only the economic development indices and increased remittances, but also habits that are rooted in human traditions, such as food and musical preferences. Immigration is a diachronic phenomenon and yet, despite appearances, it is only a minority of the earth’s population that immigrates. Generally, people tend and prefer to stay home. They move when they are obliged to, in search of a good or better life, which males population mobility on earth the norm, at least in the larger historical dimensions. In this way, immigration challenges the concept of nativity, given that it is extremely rare – excluding some traditional nations or tribes – to locate the totally native, even if he / she perceives him/herself as such. Almost always, a minor or major immigrant movement is historically linked to the idea of nativity.
    This historically uncontrollable character of migratory movements seems to have been forgotten in recent years by the administrative and political elites who deal with the issue of immigration in the European continent primarily at the national level and less at the EU level. The ignoring of the axioms of immigration’s totality and its diachronism may be attributed to the politically-guided defence of the societies and polities at the receiving end in relation to the immigrant, who may be perceived as a threat to the cohesion of the society, the unity of the political community and the individual well-being of its members.

    A positive-sum model for Europe: post-Cold War immigration

    The recent “post–Cold War” intra-European experience of population movements demonstrated that, roughly within the 10 years leading up to the beginning of the 21st century, what fuelled the insecurity of the former Western Europe was transformed into an historical opportunity for the rejuvenation of an aged population, the increase of GDP and other economic indices, support for the social insurance system, and more. This opportunity was fully exploited by European capitalism. What was perceived until then as a threat became an opportunity that was seized by the originating and receiving societies and polities for their own benefit and well-being. In this way, the population mobility that was produced by the turbulences following the collapse of the eastern bloc proved to be an historical godsend for Europe: Greece profits from Albanian labour among others, Albania profits from Albanian labour in Greece among other places, etc. This looks like an absolute positive sum for the entire continent. Yet things are more complicated: immigration gives to the European extreme right the opportunity for a dynamic return to the political centre-stage, underpinned by the instrumentalisation of fear that immigration generates among native Europeans. Furthermore, the possibilities of a considerable part of the second immigrant generation being marginalised are still there: the second generation expects much more than its parents and - unlike them - they might be ready to fight for it.
    Nevertheless, at the dawn of the 21st century, immigration generated by the end of the Cold War functions as a strange historical consolation for many European peoples who, despite the difficulties that they face in their incorporation by the new receiving societies, seem to have decided that the worries of the first immigrant generation moving to the European West (and the new West, i.e. the European South) will give way to the comforts that the second-generation immigrants will share in a familiar manner with natives of their age. In fact, this is approximately how things went. Despite the characteristic puzzlement or the lack of will of many European governments to take basic measures for the incorporation of these immigrants, societies themselves quickly found solutions to the issues of the incorporation of the immigrant communities. These solutions were obviously not ideal, in terms of the application of rights standards, but were at least solutions of a kind. It is more likely that the wager of integration, despite losses and difficulties, was won. Of course, there is much to be done and we do not really know how things will turn out in a moment of serious economic recession, like that which the West faces today.2
    As a result, today – 20 years after the end of the Cold War – when we speak in Europe of “immigration”, we have pushed into collective oblivion the images of post-Cold War population movements, having convinced ourselves that when we refer to the phenomenon of immigration, we are dealing with something different. Today, nevertheless, the European discussions about immigration are almost monopolised by other concerns.

    Puzzlement: immigration after September 11

    On the evening of September the 11, 2001, people around the world had understood that things would change for the worse. The US government decided to take revenge for the strike and began its anti-terrorist campaign in Afghanistan and Iraq, with Europe as an ally – no matter how embarrassed or divided it may have been. As a result of this policy, the area that stretches from the north-western edge of the Indian peninsula to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea is today characterised by an unprecedented geopolitical instability. This instability contributed to the emergence of a major immigrant and refugee stream from the crisis areas, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, while the population exodus of Africa and the Indian peninsular intensified.
    The distance is massive, in particular for the wretched victims who spend their fortunes and lives to come to the West. The distance is also massive for the well-fed Westerners who, in the face of these people, see the absolute stranger. The expectations for social integration of these – primarily male – immigrants are extremely low. Their entrenchment in the new ghettos of the European metropolis and the isolation of many of them in jobs in the countryside under conditions of virtual slavery largely characterise their position in the city and in production. Today, an absolutely paradoxical and until recently inconceivable phenomenon is occurring: they tend to prefer the hell of their country of origin to that of their country of “reception”.
    The inflexible immigration legislations that essentially render the crossing of the European borders and residence in EU territory legally impossible, lead to the downgrading of political asylum and of the concept of refugee.  The rates of asylum provision have never been as low in the West as they are today, while in countries such as Greece which are under the greatest pressure due to their geopolitical position, the rates in recent years have been close to zero.
    The icing on the cake is that religion has its breeding ground in the soil of despair and exclusion. A source of hope for some, of fear for others, the fundamentalist version of Islam acquires an adhesion that any other religion would envy. The believers – having lost other real social expectations - literally die for their beliefs, while it completely frightens others. Islamophobia does not seem to give in to either the enforced conception of political correctness that prevails in Europe with regard to religious freedom, or to anti-racist legislation that is geared to the imposition of a propriety that does not seem to be of too much concern for fundamentalist Muslim believers. The latter re-supply this negative climate though conceptions challenging the very core of our modern understanding of individuality, resulting in a situation where all sides feel threatened and defensive. The image of fundamental Islam is inflated and, finally, twisted: of course Islamic fundamentalism is an issue for western societies, but it by no means involves the vast majority of Muslim immigrants in Europe. 
    The political bloc winning out in this political climate is the one that does not care at all about propriety as regards immigrants: the extreme right. The latter boasts that “it does not hesitate to call things by their name”, and the result is a double victory. First, the electoral percentages of extreme right-wing parties have been rising at the European level, with a record that only a few years ago would generate horror in the continent that gave birth to Nazism. Second, and more important, the extreme right shapes the political agenda with respect to immigration, irrespective of its own electoral performance. The bourgeois parties of government observe with bewilderment their neighbours to the right who arrogantly shout out - while “looking” their electoral audience “in the eyes” – that which political correctness obliges liberal parties to whisper, and with minimal persuasiveness. Human-rights activists and the left denounce the degradation of the rule of law and the infringements of the rights of the immigrants, while being unable to articulate a political discourse that, apart from humanitarian condemnation and calls for solidarity to the immigrants, will set mid-term, realisable strategies for immigration management. Even more difficult appears the articulation of a political discourse revealing the long-term complex and often conflictual nature of broader social phenomena affecting and affected by immigration
    The current discussion on immigration is held in this quite unpromising context, always accompanied by the concern voiced by a political community when the latter feels threatened: security.

    Migration and the change in the concept of security

    Security is the basic precondition of well-being, at both the individual and the community level. Without an elementary sense of security there can be no community, because relations between individuals are abrogated. Without security, there can be no meaningful existence and effective use of rights by individuals. In this sense, the very principle of the rule of law is integrally linked to the idea of the security of law, the need for predictability of the legal consequences of the actions and omissions of individuals. We are secure when we know what is going to happen to us if we do or do not do something. This self-evident version of security is today disregarded, neutralised and replaced by a vague abstraction of security, of a penal, punishing sort.
    Treating immigration in terms of defence and crime associated with police forces strengthens the insecurity of law, putting crucial population groups – not only immigrant ones – in a permanent state of being hostage and a never-ending transition from legality to illegality with respect to residence and work. To put it simply, people break the law because they are not able to be legal in order to exercise elementary social functions. The constant quest for security in terms of punishment and expulsion strengthens insecurity:
    a) At the level of actual risk, since the status of illegality nurtures offensive behaviour, exposing people to networks of protection that substitute for the state;
    b) it feeds into the sense of insecurity of immigrants and non-immigrants alike, given that both feel threatened, and, finally,
    c) above all, it strengthens legal insecurity, since the constant quest for security in terms of expulsion leads to administrative behaviour that violates constitutional guarantees.

    Fear management then became a crucial governing element in the West, unlike ever before in modernity. Immigration management has a central place in this discourse.

    “We stand for security”

    The concept of security has, therefore, dwindled to its political dimension alone, if it is not yet identical to it. In a parallel move that completes this conceptual diversion, the social conception of security is banished from both the collective associations of public opinion and the public discourse. This development presupposes but also entails a broader disregard for the concept of security, whose direct victims are the socially weak or potentially suspicious.3 Such decay is also accompanied by the gradual releasing of the polity from its responsibilities vis-à-vis the social protection of its members, citizens or non-citizens.
    The paradox here, unfortunately, is that the victims of this conceptual deviation of security are not only the potential “persecutors”, but also the political bloc that fosters sincere feelings of solidarity for the immigrant population and struggles for its rights. Security is also conceptualised here almost purely in opposition to liberty, as if these two concepts stand in a state of permanent, inherent, mutual exclusion.
    Of course, it is true that the dilemmas around security and liberty are not totally unfounded. Nevertheless, the absolute oppositional symbiosis of the two is a one-sided and wholly misleading perception, since it only concerns the degenerated concept of security equated with persecution and punishment. However, the concept of security is definitely more comprehensive, given that it denotes a field of responsibility, care and protection for individuals through provisions for social incorporation and an effective enjoyment of rights by all members of the society. A secure society involves having police forces but also, on the one hand, schools that do not disregard the identity of immigrants, an effective labour legislation and other similar provisions.
    While one would therefore expect the bloc advocating immigrant rights to elevate the comprehensive, social orientation of the concept of security to the level of the central programmatic discourse, unfortunately this bloc falls into the trap of this conceptual deviation by reproducing the well-known dilemma of “security or liberty”, in which the response of “liberty” is already taken for granted. What other response could we in any case give to such question? Is there a better gift to the extreme right and the neo-conservative policies which miraculously inherit all claims to security, as if they are the sole owners, the property-right holders of this concept?
    It is imperative for human-rights activists, be they of liberal or of Marxist orientation, to assume the political responsibility of the “repatriation” of the concept of security through its re-conceptualisation and de-linking from the “securitised”, politically one-dimensional and methodologically misleading version. This can only take place in terms of an aggressive political rhetoric, and not apologetically: “we are on the side of security, we who fight for the civil, political and social rights of the immigrants and not you who, with your rhetoric, stir fear and intolerance among people in the name of their security; because in this way, you threaten the security of our communities, and of each one of us individually, irrespective of citizenship, race, nationality and colour”.

    Towards taking responsibility

    I attempted above to argue in favour of a conception that places (anti-)immigration policies against the real cost of the disruption of the social fabric and of the respective threats that the realisation of these policies generates over the security of communities.
    At the time when we attempt politically to show how those policies which treat immigration as a threat bear obvious responsibility for the often delicate balance in which the relations of immigrants and natives have entered in recent years in Europe, we must also face our own ineluctable responsibility vis-à-vis the difficult circumstances that have emerged out of the population exodus of Asia and Africa towards a Europe that displays a clear inability to cope with this crisis.
    Here, things become even more difficult: the fruitless condemnations of anti-immigrant policies are not only insufficient, but often offer an alibi for the application of even harsher policies towards the immigrants. I do not imply that the unmasking and castigation of a policy brutally violating the rights of human beings is not necessary; of course it is.  However, the unmasking and castigation of such a policy does not constitute a sufficient condition for the achievement of the desired outcome, which is the strengthening of the rights-based methods of handling human beings. And, still, humanitarianism has never been a long-term solution to problems involving unequal power-sharing among human groups: immigration is par excellence such a phenomenon. The lack of substantive proposals offering a convincing and fair way forward with respect to situations like the ones experienced today at Europe’s borders is a gift to the logic that sees the police as the sole public service that should be called on to deal with immigrants.

    “No borders”?

    The following example is allusive and telling. The slogan “No borders” has been for many years the trademark of solidarity towards the immigrant communities. Together with the slogan “Another world is possible”, the two constitute a programmatic discourse of political resistance that, in the last decade, has united at the global and European level a movement of protest and critique of the capitalist division of labour in the entire Western hemisphere. Immigration ranks high in the political agenda of this movement. However, the fact that a borderless world is possible and, indeed, desirable, cannot automatically translate into the idea that borders can be abolished in a world of states, as we know it today. States without borders can hardly be conceptualised, since borders function as territorial filters: states welcome what they need, reject what they do not, or place somewhere in between the weakest, like unqualified labour immigrating today, which might be of use today but not tomorrow. Borders are neither closed, nor they can be open. The idea of territoriality is associated with the historical version of the modern state that exercises its authority over a population in a defined territory. Surely, the principle of territoriality is not a historical commandment, in the sense that it might not last forever. Nevertheless, as long as this type of state exists, no abolition of borders can be realised. As the case of the EU highlights, the neutralisation of internal borders is accompanied by the fortification of its external borders.
     The claim of states to their right to control who enters and who leaves their territory can be regarded with suspicion, because in the name of this control a series of brutalities are committed by the persecuting authorities. However, this policy should be seen as one that corresponds to the historical type of state authority that we all know (irrespective of whether, at the same time, we seek to change it). Consequently, “no borders” cannot possibly constitute a convincing response to the question of immigration today and tomorrow. It is a programmatic objective that presupposes the withering of the state, as we would once say. Thus – whether we like it or not – borders in one form or another that presuppose the exercise of power will exist as long as states exist, in an attempt to control immigration as well.
    As much as we need to reconcile ourselves to this reality – without implying that we should resign from our efforts to overturn it – states also need to reconcile themselves to the reality that is dictated by the historical diachronism we mentioned in the beginning of this article. This diachronism should translate into an acceptance of the fact that immigration existed, exists and will exist, and that the immigration flows do not cease to exist simply because there are strict border controls in place. What should also gradually concern the developed states of the West which accept immigrants is the fact that the allocation of huge sums of money for border control, whatever other costs this measure entails in terms of human life and dignity, is an economically unviable policy.

    Temporary registration of immigrants?

    Nevertheless, the question remains. Given that the demand that states resign from guarding their borders places us before an historical dilemma, a crucial calculation needs to be done. This is a need that the world of rights has adamantly repressed in order to avoid appearing as an accomplice to the management of the state. “Seeing things their way”, as suggested by the title of this text, means, on the one hand, that we do not believe in the possibility of building structures of real knowledge on foundations that are supposed to be completely independent from our judgments, and on the other hand, that our judgments are founded on a given historical experience that is beyond our will.
    Sovereignty without borders has no historical precedent and the fact that borders today are more open than ever to capitals and not to people helps us to understand the class nature of globalisation developments. In that context, the voluntarism expressed by the “no borders” slogan contains an irreducible element of political naïveté which does not help much in the current, conjuncture with respect to immigration.
    Therefore, what can one say about deporting immigrants, a sad and harsh reality of the European political agenda? Is it enough to condemn this phenomenon, simply in order to maintain a clean comradely conscience and immaculate instincts of solidarity with the afflicted populations? My straightforward response is “no”. Of course, it is our duty to uncover and criticise the brutal border policies that violate every sense of dignity and life. There is an urgent need for the administrations to realise that deportation is no solution, seeing as a great part of these people return, irrespective of whether they have been expelled or not. Moreover, it is necessary to put forward the idea of collective and primarily Western responsibility for what is happening in the hard-hit areas, as well as to emphasise the urgent need of a proportionate dissemination of the immigrant population among the European states and the coordination of European policy.4 However, none of these is very convincing if cloaked in the voluntarist veil of “no borders”, through which the range of our arguments can easily be dismissed.5
    Temporary registration of undocumented immigrants can be a transitional solution. The minimum is to know who every human being on the state’s territory is, where that person is, and how he/she got there. A person needs a status, even the most elementary one. Otherwise, “bare life” – as Agamben says – life with absolutely no rights, is what you have, which is a shame for modernity.
    And, finally, we put the legalisation of the immigrants already settled in the receiving countries at the heart of the political agenda, in order to free millions of individuals and their families now held hostage to the petty and, in the last instance, thoughtless treatment they receive from the state authorities.


    Immigration needs to be demystified. It is a difficult issue and the person who puts forward fast and easy solutions cannot be taken seriously. Still, Europe in the past has been through major difficulties – much harder circumstances than the ones it faces today – and the presence of a political will and an understanding of the need to finance the needed measures helped in order in overcoming these circumstances. This is needed in the case with immigration today. 
    I conclude that in this conjuncture we should commit our forces to a three-fold task, as far as immigration is concerned:
    First, the intellectual task of analysing reality calmly and critically. By “calmly”, I mean in a reflective and structured manner, avoiding the convenience of frantic truisms and of a simplistic, constantly denunciatory discourse. By “critically”, on the other hand, I mean vigorously and not at all apologetically.
    Second, the moral task of deciding which values and which shades of values we should give priority to. I stress the concept of shades of values because politics, according to Machiavelli, does not lend itself to theological adherences to all-encompassing dichotomies such as good/evil, just/unjust, etc.
    Third, the political task of contributing to the possible emergence of a new world out of the current chaotic, structural crisis of the capitalist world, clearly and precisely setting our personal and collective priorities within our mid- and long-term political objectives, “seeing things in their own way” but also realising the historically convincing preconditions for “our way” to change things for the better.


    1. See, among the other principal works of the British philosopher, Visions of Politics. Volume 1: Regarding Method, Cambridge University Press, 2002.
    2. A blatant example is a set of regulations that might facilitate the acquisition of citizenship by the second generation, primarily in states where ius sanguinis rules in the most rigid way.
    3. This relentless slide towards schemes of a police state is described in the case of the European mid-war period by Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, San Diego-New York-London 1976, p.  286 ff.  
    4. Enough of the in vitro philanthropy of those who keep their borders closed in every possible way, making use of the comparative advantage provided to them by community legislation and the scandalous provisions of the so-called Dublin II Treaty, according to which immigrants without documents are deported to the state through which they firstly entered the EU.
    5. One may object: “is it possible for the left or for human-rights advocates to justify or be charged with the management of the problem in control terms? Don’t we, in this way, condone in some way the cruel policies against the immigrants? Shouldn’t we simply try and resist these policies as much as we can, in an attempt to save whatever we can from the frontal attack against human rights today?” My response is allusive: if there were any serious indication that such an approach would effectively get protection of rights inserted into state immigration policies, then I would have convincing reasons to support it. However, I think that the situation is different, and that we are simply turning a blind eye to reality.

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