Immigration is the joint effect of a push and a pull, though the relative strength of each can vary greatly. If one considers the great mass movements of the Western world, the first, peaking around the middle of our first millennium, was mainly a matter of “push”, with one people chasing another from East to West and taking possession of its land. The second, also from East to West, was the slave trade carried on for nearly three centuries and which petered out early in the 19th century, where white slavers, usually with the complicity of tribal chiefs, caught and transported Africans to the Caribbean and the southern United States, where they produced sugar and cotton in exchange for their keep, such as it was. The main moving force was the “pull” of profitability. Its fruits were captured by the African tribal chiefs, the slave traders, and the plantation owners, but the slaves were excluded due to the weakness or lack of rules that would protect the freedoms of unarmed or poorly armed individuals. In the third major migratory wave peaking before World War I, Europeans settled North America. They were pushed by repeated periods of agricultural depression (itself partly the result of imports from the newly settled great grain producing areas of the U.S. Midwest and Canada), and partly natural calamities such as the Irish famine. However, the pull of fairly fertile land, to be had in freehold by squatting on it, was the dominant reason for crossing the Atlantic.

Migration in Europe since World War II has been too chaotic for a dominant trend to be discerned. Two of the early streams of Turks to Germany and Arabs to France, were mostly responses to the full employment opportunities in western Europe and were fully agreed to by the host countries. The flight from Soviet Russia and its satellites to the West was more due to what has come to be called “asylum seeking” than to economic calculus. It is probably fair to say that since the flood of refugees from Socialism has passed, there is practically no need for a European resident to seek asylum, and if there are still political refugees in Europe, they have come from the Middle East and Africa where the intrinsic turbulence of Islam and the inability of Muslim sects to coexist with each other or with non-Muslims unless forced to do so under some iron-handed dictator, is pushing large numbers to yield to the hostile push of religious zealotry and seek shelter in Europe. Today’s migrants to Europe are of two types from the legal point of view. One type enters his target country with the latter’s consent and a regular visa. They come as students, tourists, relatives of residents and other genuine reasons and false pretexts. Once their visa has expired, they remain in the chosen host country as “illegal” immigrants. They then apply for political asylum, a claim that neither they nor the authorities regard as more than a poor joke, but which both pretend to take for a genuine right. However, with ample facilities for appeals, such claims take two or more years to settle. Once rejected, the host country may expel the illegal immigrant, but appeals to human rights by a very vocal minority and the genuine compassion felt by many for hard cases make expulsion very difficult. In Britain, for instance, there is an estimated 600,000 pool of illegal immigrants with an annual intake of maybe 80,000, but the authorities succeed in expelling only about 15,000 a year. Those who remain mostly benefit from English tolerance and good faith and from their children being British-born.

The other type of today’s European immigrations relies not so much on the abuse of visas, but on clandestine frontier crossings. “Illegal” immigrants to France and Germany both are around 60,000 annually. Besides the spurious claim of political asylum, compassionate grounds may be found for letting them stay. While vocal minorities make expulsion no less difficult than it is from Britain.

The hard-nosed majority of most European countries, while less vocal than the human rights championing minority who speak from the ethical pulpit, are more and more upset to find that they and their government have so little say in deciding how many non-natives, and of what kind, come and settle in their country—or perhaps more precisely, in the country they believe to be theirs. Sensing the rising anger, governments currently scramble to tighten up the granting of visas in order to shorten the asylum judgment process, make clandestine entry more difficult, and the access of clandestine residents to welfare-type benefits harder. Under the Schengen agreements, residents of most European countries pass across frontiers as of right, and only people from non-Schengen countries may be denied entry. A recent Brussels decision under the promising name of “Eurosure” is supposed to control entry into the Schengen area more effectively, but it is a good guess that except for the new name, nothing much will change. If the immense resources employed by the U.S.A. to control their border with Mexico have so modest an effect, there is little reason to expect Eurosure to have much effect at all. The core of the European immigration problem, one that takes effective control over who comes to live in Europe out of the hands of Europeans, is that they are hard-nosed and soft-hearted at the same time, and both attitudes have an equally good claim to be right. With cool heads and warn sentiments cancelling each other out the gates are open to a new type of immigration that is neither clandestine nor authorised. It is peaceful intrusion enforced by moral blackmail involving, in worst-case scenarios, the threat of suicide of the blackmailer. It is strikingly illustrated by what might fittingly be called the Lampedusa Dilemma.

Lampedusa is a small island, the southernmost part of Italy. Its 8 square miles lie a mere 70 miles from the North African coast. Between Gibraltar and the Bosporus, there are several streams of refugees, an annual total of about 140,000, making their way from the Near East and Africa to Europe. The catchment area is vast; immigrants come from as far south as Nigeria; two of the streams flow to Italy, partly absorbed in the peninsula, partly drifting on northwards. One of these streams makes a short halt in Lampedusa before being moved on to refugee reception centres on the mainland. However, once setting foot on Lampedusa, the main objective of the refugees is achieved; they are on the right side of the Schengen fence that supposedly protects Europe from uninvited and unwanted entrants.

Would-be voyagers to Lampedusa first make their way from their homelands in Eritrea, Syria, Somaliland, Sudan and other luckless countries to the Libyan or Tunisian coast, miraculously scraping together the necessary means. Once there, they must pay a further $2,000 to $3,000 to specialised traffickers for the sea passage to Lampedusa. They are piled into the oldest and least seaworthy and hence the cheapest vessels the traffickers can find, which are expected to carry several hundred people across the high seas , a task for which such coastal fishing boats are patently unfit, and are sent off to court their good luck.

The Italian navy is out in force to keep an eye on these miserable vessels. The initial idea behind ordering it out was that it would act as a deterrent to this traffic but which it is unable to do. The traffickers and their vast profits were sitting pretty on the Libyan coast and their customers at sea, desperate to arrive, would rather drown than let their boat turn round and take them back to Africa. The navy’s mission has become one of support and rescue in the frequent cases of shipwreck. Even so, many hundreds have perished often within sight of the shore, when their boat capsized or just sank like any leaky bucket will sink. However, the bulk of the refugees got, and continue to get, through to Lampedusa “illegally” and are granted immigrant status willy-nilly. The hard-nosed alternative of throwing them into the sea or shipping them back to the African shore and never mind what happens to them, just could not and will not be envisaged by a civilised nation. Immigration, decided unilaterally by the immigrant, seems destined to remain irresistible. The dilemma has no other solution.

Looking for the ultimate causes of the dilemma, two physical objects stand out as decisive in setting out the structure of this “game.” One is a television set. There are now countless millions in the pre-industrial parts of the world, bringing home to the poorest of its poor the images of universal comfort and abundance of the industrialised societies. Probably never before in pre-television ages has the gap between the affluence “over there” and the abject poverty “over here” been as sharply and as widely perceived as it is today.

The other object, decisive in setting up the dilemma of contemporary immigration, is the Kalashnikov rifle or any of its quick-firing cousins. The wonderful boom-boom-boom that a teenage master of such a gun can conjure up with a finger makes him feel like a demi-god and reduces grown but unarmed men and women to fearful obedience. The bearers of Kalashnikovs permit a government employing them to exploit its subjects more universally and deeply than in earlier ages when chiefs and their supporters had much the same kinds of cutting and thrusting weapons as the villagers they tried to exploit, and there was much less to take from villagers living by subsistence farming than from the more diversified producers of today. In some African countries a small army and its automatic weapons, enables the government and its close friends to steal probably as much as ten per cent of the national product. Militias needed to decide the outcome of what are politely called democratic elections, also wreak occasional havoc among unarmed populations. Worst of all the consequences of the Kalashnikov in the least lucky African and Middle Eastern countries (and elsewhere, too) is that well-established governments have achieved enough power to impose counter-productive policies on the whole economy that do more damage to the poor than the most shameless corruption.

It is not too fanciful to conclude that if it had not been for television and the Kalashnikov and all that they symbolise, poverty and hopelessness would not be so painfully pushing some of the best people of Africa and the Middle East to force their way into the more prosperous world Europeans have built for themselves over the centuries. We cannot even imagine what new physical objects the future may bring forth to replace and undo the effects of television and the Kalashnikov on the immigration dilemma. But if progress were to produce something similar, let us try not to obstruct the work they might quietly accomplish.


*Anthony de Jasay is an Anglo-Hungarian economist living in France. He is the author, a.o., of The State (Oxford, 1985), Social Contract, Free Ride (Oxford 1989), Against Politics (London, 1997), and Justice and Its Surroundings (Indianapolis, 2002). His most recent publications include Political Philosophy, Clearly (Indianapolis, 2010) and Political Economy, Concisely (Indianapolis, 2010). His next volume, Economic Sense and Nonsense: Reflections from Europe, 2007-?2012 (a volume in The Collected Papers of Anthony de Jasay), edited and with an introduction by Hartmut Kliemt, is forthcoming from Liberty Fund.

The State is also available online on this website.

For more articles by Anthony de Jasay, see the Archive.