Refugees and the limits of liberal multiculturalism

refugees multiculturalism


The refugee crisis has dominated the mainstream media for weeks now. However, it is surprising that throughout the changes of public opinion, and different stands taken by leaders across Europe, at different times, much of what is said about refugees has remained pretty conventional. The liberal and left-leaning press have laid claim to the pro-refugee narrative. This is a laudable stand; however, it has often been coupled with an unhelpful tendency to simply denigrate anyone who disagrees with them. How can we have a serious discussion about the future place of refugees in Britain if anyone who expresses concern is considered to be, simply, wrong?

For example, on 3rd September the Economist dubbed Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, ‘Merkel the Bold’, for her reaction to the ongoing refugee crisis. Then, a week later, the paper expanded on this view. Accepting refugees and economic migrants is a moral imperative, the Economist argues, concluding that the amount of migrants Europe has said it will receive comes nowhere close to the amount it could accept, and that the boundaries of ‘social tolerance’ are fuzzy: “the people of Europe are more welcoming than their nervous politicians assume. The politics of fear can be trumped by the politics of dignity. Mrs Merkel understood this; so should the rest of the world.”

With Germany reintroducing border controls, and Hungary’s ongoing hostility to refugees it seems like the ‘politics of fear’ may have won. Yet, part of the problem is that when discussing refugees we lack the vocabulary to facilitate healthy discussion of the issue. The moral case for taking refugees is clear, and we all — individually and nationally — have a duty to our fellow human beings. Hence, a Guardian editorial published back on 25th August accusing Britain’s immigration policy of being ‘morally bankrupt’. However, this means that, often, for those who commit themselves to acting morally, anybody who disagrees with them — in the Economist’s terms, voters — is defined as embracing the ‘politics of fear’.

To understand this, we need to consider the way in which a commitment to acting morally can blinker our vision significantly. We pick examples of opinions which we find offensive, and define ourselves against those opinions; we are more enlightened, better than those whose views we consider. This is precisely the way in which a post from the Huffington Post works: pairing comments from the Facebook page ‘British First’ against pictures of refugees on Kos. There is any number of examples like this to confirm our bias that can be easily found by quickly consulting Google. I think that this is also part of the logic behind the Economist‘s equation of the opinions of voters with ‘the politics of fear’: when ‘Merkel the Bold’ leads Europe with a more moral policy these voters will forget their initial fear and come realise the rationality of her actions.

Steven Glover, writing in the Daily Mail on 10th September is of the opinion that “the left can’t browbeat British people into accepting more migrants”. Glover’s analysis rests on three opinion polls, which state that 3 out of 4 people think that Britain should accept less than 10,000 refugees; that 57% of people think that 20,000 refugees or less is the right figure; that 45% of people think that 20,000 refugees is too many. Even if these figures are correct for the general population (which is highly unlikely, given the sample sizes) I would still be arguing that we should ground our policy towards refugees in compassion and an awareness of our shared humanity.

Still, that doesn’t mean we should ignore such figures and what they represent. There exists clear and tangible concerns among various members of the population about immigration, migrants and refugees. We can see this evidenced in, for example, UKIP’s gain of 12.6% of the vote in the general election. This isn’t simply a British problem either: Donald Trump’s infamous remarks about Mexicans are in a similar vein. Trump wasn’t only being racist, but also hoping to cash in on fears of insecurity among Republican voters.

‘Racism’ is perhaps the most important word here: it is a word easily used to dismiss such fears, as when Gordon Brown called Gillian Duffy a bigot in 2010. When we use this word in such a way it attests to the problem: we don’t have a framework that allows us to consider fears about community with a stance that is culturally liberal and broadly supportive of immigration. This is a fundamental problem with liberal multiculturalism. A commitment to a multicultural society means that it is difficult to answer questions about, for example, the effect migration has on real wages. And if these questions aren’t couched in a polite, politically correct manner there is always the easy ability to resort to labels of bigotry or racism.

Celebrating difference of all kinds is important, but when it comes to immigration we need to temper that by adopting a framework which makes a place for concerns about existing communities, without dismissing the opinions of others. We need to move away from a model of understanding immigration which relies on concepts of ‘cultural richness’ and vague ‘prosperity’ to adopt a more rounded debate. We need to recognise that we have moral duties to displaced populations, but that this can result in not profound changes for other people. We need to recognise that, at the very least, large scale migration has its part in generating fear and uncertainty and no one is to blame for feeling these things.

So as well as taking a bold stand and fulfilling our duties towards refugees, we need to move to have a genuine debate that is as inclusive of all sides as possible. Part of the problems in developing this debate is that there has been a tendency to adopt diametrically opposed viewpoints: immigration is either a threat to everyone, or it is to be embraced in its entirety. Neither of these views are helpful, and neither, I think, reflect experiences of immigration as they are actually lived. We also need to have this debate at least at the pan-European level, because any nation acting on its own will not have the solutions. If we don’t do this we will ignore too many people’s legitimate concerns: and that’s when the politics of fear will begin.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are not representative of ‘Palatinate’, and are those of the author only. If you disagree with the opinions expressed, feel free to email the Politics section at 

Photograph: Haeferl via Wikimedia Commons

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