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EXODUS: Immigration and Multiculturalism in the 21st Century by Paul Collier

  • Written by  Jonathan Wright
  • Published in Books
EXODUS: Immigration and Multiculturalism in the 21st Century by Paul Collier
01 Jan
2014
Paul Collier invites us to engage in an immigration debate that moves ‘beyond views that are theatrically polarized and stridently expressed’. A worthwhile goal and, although some of the underpinnings of Collier’s specific arguments are problematic, his calm, scholarly rigour warrants respect

The marrow of Collier’s book is an analysis of the social and economic consequences of migration – for the migrants themselves, the countries to which they move and the places they leave behind. Collier isn’t against migration from poorer to richer countries; it’s inevitable and he calculates that, thus far, it has probably produced net benefits. He’s eager, however, to determine what levels of migration are desirable and he’s concerned that if they accelerate too rapidly in the future, it may be detrimental to all concerned.

There are many intriguing studies within these pages and Collier asks important questions. What role does the size of an immigrant community in a specific place have on the processes of migration? It seems, as one might predict, that the larger the diaspora becomes, the more people are drawn to it from the home country.

What impact does immigration have on the economic life of the safe harbours? Here, Collier warns against exaggeration when it comes to the consequences for employment, housing availability, access to social resources and so forth. At least at present levels of immigration, there’s sometimes a deleterious impact on those on the lowest rungs of the indigenous economic ladder but everyone else fares tolerably well. And we also have to factor in the increased economic fluidity and flexibility that immigration provides.

Perhaps the most fascinating parts of the book concern the ramifications for nations that lose sizeable numbers of people to migration. It’s simplistic to talk about a disastrous ‘brain drain’ in which the brightest and most venturesome individuals abandon their homelands. In fact, Collier argues, as long as emigration remains at a modest level, it can stimulate ambition and educational aspiration within the remaining population – and we shouldn’t forget the beneficial role of cash being sent home.

The social impact is, by Collier’s reckoning, rather more complicated. Multicultural diversity and vibrancy may be wonderful, but Collier also stresses what he sees as the potential risks.

Here, the book becomes a little more confusing. Collier talks a lot about social cooperation and what he calls ‘mutual regard’ – he identifies a sense of national identity as crucial to such mechanisms. He’s suspicious of liberal talk of a ‘post-national future’. He’s most certainly not a fan of rabid nationalism, still less of racism or prejudice, but he argues that migration (while a valuable process) inevitably complicates the situation.

This is true, but one is tempted to ask, ‘So what?’ What, after all, is this thing called national identity? Collier is rather vague about this, which is hardly surprising. It’s something that has always been in flux and perhaps it should be determined by simple demographic maths.

Furthermore, while multiculturalism isn’t an easy wicket, processes of assimilation (whatever that means) aren’t panaceas. I find it difficult to accept that the success or failure of immigration should be judged by how well newcomers ‘fit in’.

The great thing about nation states, as Collier argues, is that they’re very good at raising taxes and redistributing wealth, and this requires a sense of solidarity. Fair enough, but I have a soft spot for the old boy who hasn’t bothered to learn English and sustains his original cultural identity, and I’m more than happy if my taxes help to pay for his medical needs.

I also enjoy visiting the big city, listening to languages I don’t understand and, in certain sectors of the capital, feeling like a welcome and perfectly safe outsider. This is a source of enrichment and something of which Britain should be very proud.

Nonetheless, Collier deserves praise for confronting controversial issues soberly. He doesn’t shy away from discussing caps on immigration or the criteria by which migration should be organised, and he reminds us that trying to get immigration right (or being concerned about how it may go wrong) doesn’t make you a blinkered Little Englander.

We need a nuanced debate and Collier’s book helps this cause, even if it sometimes exaggerates problems that may or may not arise. 

EXODUS: Immigration and Multiculturalism in the 21st Century by Paul Collier, Allen Lane, £20

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