Migration, Democracy, and Cosmopolitanism

| December 2015
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The regional elections in France, and the U.S. presidential race, are focusing a great deal of attention on questions of migration, community, and democracy. It is forcing policymakers to balance the duties that are owed to all human beings versus commitments made in the specific social contracts reached between governments and governed. How these ethical issues are settled–and how priorities are set–seems to be becoming the defining issues of election campaigns throughout the Western world.

One particular fault line is whether there is a distinction between someone seeking refuge versus someone seeking to migrate or change one’s place of residence. Is the duty to provide for a refugee as codified in international law and in treaty obligations– defined as someone who has been forced to flee from his or her home due to violence or natural disaster, but who has a clear intent to return once the immediate crisis is over–different from the obligation to open one’s borders to someone who seeks better living conditions? An ongoing and still unsettled issue driving the European migration/refugee crisis is whether someone fleeing from war has the obligation to remain in the first location that provides a reasonable safe haven (and whether other countries are, in turn, required to provide assistance to countries that are playing the safe haven role)–and whether that refugee who has found a safe haven, but who wishes to continue onward to find a more congenial location or even to change his or her permanent residence, has been transformed from a refugee into a migrant and therefore no longer has the right to make the claims due to a refugee on subsequent countries. Related is whether one is a refugee because of an immediate threat of death (for example, from war as in the case of Syrians or Yemenese or Iraqis) or because of an utter lack of economic opportunities that prevent the chance for development.

If a refugee has indicated an intent to eventually return to his or her point of origin, during his or her stay in safe refuge, it may not be incumbent on that person to assimilate to the laws, mores, and customs of the host society, but is the same assumption made of someone who seeks to migrate? Does a migrant have a moral obligation to assimilate into the society in which he or she has chosen to reside? In turn, does a society that accepts migrants have obligations either to assist with assimilation or to allow for a redefinition of what it means to be a full member of the social and political community–what the markers of membership are to be (in terms of language, ethnic origin, religious practice, and so on)?

Historically, groups of migrants would either seek to assimilate into the host society, giving up their separate characteristics, or would preserve their distinctiveness, but accept a distinct social, political, and even legal position. (I think here of the differences between the status of Jewish migrants in the Chinese Empire (during the Ming and Manchu periods), who through intermarriage and acceptance slowly disappeared as a distinct group, and the status of Jewish migrants in the Ottoman Empire–particularly the Sephardim after their expulsion from Spain–who preserved their distinctiveness but always remained a separate and subordinate community within the empire, excepting those Jews who chose to convert to Islam and become Ottoman Turks.) Today, throughout the developed world, the fault lines over migration, assimilation, and membership in the community are rising to the fore. Furthermore, in the European Union, the question of being a “European,” with rights of free migration, is running up against the return of national boundaries, marked by the resurrection of border posts and fences.

Ultimately, these questions will also test the limits of democracy. While we often associate the term with the idea of the “rule of the people,” the root word in democracy, the Greek term “demos” (δῆμος), refers to a specific group of people inhabiting a defined territory who form a community. The original demes of Athens were outlying communities and neighborhoods of the main city, initially defined by shared family and kin ties, which became self-governing units. A “democracy” was a governing unit which looked out for the interests of its members–who were not always coterminous with residents or people who happened to be living within its boundaries. A “demos” was defined, limited, and specific. Like the Latin “res publicae” (the public matter)–from where we get our word republic, the demos was responsible to and had ethical obligations only to its members: to see to their welfare, well-being, and security. Ethical obligations to strangers (the xenoi) ranked lower, and while there might be an obligation to show hospitality or render aid, the thinking was that should not occur at the expense of the members of the demos.

To oppose this more narrow view, the cosmopolitan approach developed. The Greek term κοσμοπολίτης literally designates someone as a citizen–a person claiming the rights of being a member of the polis, the political community–not of a limited demos or territory or group but of the world, the universe, or by extension the entire human race. Nations and states are administrative divisions but the obligations are rendered not to citizens or locals or natives but human beings, as far as possible.

A cosmopolitan definition of the demos, therefore, is more far-ranging in terms of who is owed duties and protection by the democracy in question. When economies are prosperous and societies are secure, cosmopolitanism finds greater acceptance. When economies contract or insecurity grows, pressure grows to restrict and limit the demos. It is this tug of war that is now defining politics in much of Europe and the United States. It will also be a test as to whether the expanding definitions that have characterized Western polities for the last several decades will continue to hold, or will begin to contract. It also marks the reemergence in modern politics of rival visions of who constitutes the legitimate demos of a society–debates that many thought were over and solved a long time ago, but which are reemerging and are likely to contribute to further political polarization and intercommunal tensions.

See a follow-up to this post by Nick Gvosdev here.

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Category: Blog, Migration

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