The ethics of immigration

The ethics of immigration

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As with many issues, discussions surrounding the issues raised by immigration are often dominated by pragmatic arguments, for example questioning whether we have room for more people, whether we have the resources to support them or whether they will 'damage' the native culture. This short article seeks to raise wider questions which the writer suggests should help us think more deeply about what informs our views and thoughts about how to handle the migration of people around our planet.

I will edit and update the article in response to comments from others.

What is a nation state?

Who does the planet earth and the lands on it belong to? Does anyone have the moral right to exclude people from any particular part of the earth?

National boundaries are accidents of history. They exist largely as a result of wars and fights over territory. There are of course natural physical boundaries (seas, mountain ranges, large rivers etc), but largely who has jurisdiction over a piece of land is mainly a result of who had the cunning, power or resources available to capture and hold it.

The legitimacy of a nation state is of course determined by a consensus of the powerful. This relies on some kind of globally recognised system of justice (or a least status quo). And of course any such system is likely to be either empowered or constrained by the most powerful and influential players.

International justice

International justice is a goal that is probably impossible to realise. It will always be imperfect, subject to distortion and manipulation. Enforcement is a particular difficulty, with individual countries refusing to co-operate or abide by decisions of the relevant institutions. This in itself raises a crucial ethical question, should a national government prioritise national advantage or complying with international law? If global institutions legitimise nation states, is legitimate self determination conditional on adherence to a globally agreed set of principles?

We should also ask ourselves why should a person born within the borders of one nation be denied the benefits given to those born elsewhere? Is an accident of birth a good enough reason to reinforce and arbitrate who deserves certain rights, standards of living or mobility?

What drives migration?

Clearly lots of things drive the desire for people to move around the globe. Hunger, persecution, war, familial ties, work, standard of living, opportunity to name but a few. However most accept that the key drivers, war, climate change and enormous disparity of wealth around the world are key factors. If those drivers are directly or indirectly caused by a particular set of nations (e.g. consumption in the affluent countries driving climate change, initiating conflict or the legacy of colonialism), does that place a moral responsibility on those nations responsible to accept immigration from those countries affected?

Is it morally wrong to oppose an individual’s desire to improve their lot or that of their families, which they didn’t choose, but had inflicted on them owing to a the accident of where they were born?

Is economic deprivation really less of a valid moral reason to migrate than physical or emotional persecution?

National responses

Are hard borders in direct opposition to a liberal mindset – something to be expected of totalitarianism rather than compassionate and open democracies?  Is being compassionate and caring for others a responsibility or choice?

If we accept a nation’s right to deny entry to others, is there a line where this right has to be sacrificed for the global good (e.g. in the event of a southern hemisphere total drought, or a global nuclear exchange or other catastrophe?).

Is preserving a certain ‘way of life’ any kind of moral justification for controlling immigration? Indeed if the ‘way of life’ can even be determined?

Are there competing (?higher) values that should stand opposed to the values of self determination for a national population?

Are the rights of immigrants equal to those of the nation state they wish to enter, or less than a‘native’ inhabitant (however that is determined)?

Treatment of individuals

Perhaps this shouldn't need to be said, but I fear it does. The generalisations and characterisations of the 'other', i.e. those seeking to come here for whatever reason, I would categorise as deeply dangerous and when adopted by powerful people in history have nearly always led to dreadful persecution and suffering. Whatever decisions we make, our behaviours towards others should always be even handed, respectful and have integrity. We should never do things that add to the misery and suffering of others.


Even a brief excursion into an examination of the ethical questions surrounding immigration raises a very large number of very difficult and challenging issues. The writer claims no answers but does believe that beginning with the assumption that people are very similar around the world and have similar desires and aspirations. Couple this with perhaps the most important and constructive human response, that of empathy, should perhaps lead us towards a generous response to those seeking to relocate.  The golden rule, treat others as we would wish to be treated would be my leading light.

I would recommend this article as a kick off point for more reading on this subject:

Debating the Ethics of Immigration: Is There a Right to Exclude? | Reviews | Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews | University of Notre Dame (


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  • Many difficult questions here!

    A couple of fairly straightforward responses (I think!)...

    You ask if the drivers of immigration are directly or indirectly caused by a particular set of nations, does that place a moral responsibility on those nations responsible to accept immigration from those countries affected?  Absolutely!  We are not directly responsible for all their problems, but we have been interfering in the internal affairs of other, weaker nations for centuries, and many of their problems today are a direct result of our actions.  Of course we are responsible, so we have an obligation to do something to help - something substantial.

    To take one obvious example: we took part in the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, and then (to top it) we made a complete mess of the invasion, changing our objective several times and causing even more disruption to the people; we then supported what we knew to be a corrupt  government, which was so bad that the Affghan people who (mostly) hated the Taliban were prepared to back the Taliban's rebellion against the government we were proping up.  It is hard to see how we could have made a worse mess of the country.  We should not have invaded in the first place, and once we were there, we had an obligation to leave the country better off, but instead we implemented a bunch of policies which had the inevitable effect of wrecking the infrastructure.

    And you ask if there are competing (?higher) values that should stand opposed to the values of self determination for a national population?  I'm not sure about that, but I do question whether, in any of the countries where immigrating from, there is any real degree of self determination.  Many of them are ruled by dictators - dictators who (for the most part) we put in place or suported; and, where that is not the case, they are generally ruled by  an unelected military council.  These are not functioning democracies (which is, sometimes, our excuse for invading or interfering in some other way.)  The people who are suffering are not the ones who created the problems.


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