Book review: Exodus: Immigration and Multiculturalism in the 21st Century, By Paul Collier

Kenan Malik contests a well-meaning but flawed call for curbs on global movement

Migration, Paul Collier observes, "affects many groups, but only one has the practical power to control it: the indigenous population of host societies". So, he asks, "Should that group act in its self-interest, or balance the interests of all groups?" That is the question is at the heart of Collier's new book.

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A developmental economist, Collier has long been concerned with questions of poverty and justice, particularly in Africa. Truly to understand immigration, he argues, we have to unpack its impact on the three key groups - migrants themselves, the host community, and those left behind in the countries of origin. The real question, he suggests, is not whether immigration is good or bad, but how much of it brings benefits to each of these groups.

Exodus is gracefully written and elegantly argued. But despite its wealth of statistical evidence, there is often a chasm between that evidence and Collier's more contentious arguments. Many of its solutions are morally questionable.

Consider, for instance, Collier's analysis of the impact of migration of those left behind, and of what should be done about it. Two main factors are important here: the remittances sent home by those who migrate, which are beneficial, and the brain drain caused by emigration, which is detrimental. For most poor countries, Collier suggests, the impact of the brain drain outweighs the benefits of remittances. Poor countries would therefore "benefit from emigration controls" to prevent their best people from leaving but in practice cannot "control either the emigration rate or the rate of return", and so "are dependent upon controls set by governments of host countries".

For Collier there is a moral case for rich countries to impose immigration controls as a way of helping the poor. Suppose, however, that poor countries were able to prevent their citizens from leaving. Would it be moral for them to do so? I doubt that many people would say "Yes". It would, after all, be asking such countries to be like North Korea. But if it is immoral for poor countries to prevent citizens from leaving, why is it moral for rich countries to do that job for them? Especially when to do so requires coercion and brutality.

For years, the EU paid huge sums to Colonel Gaddafi for his security services to ensure that immigrants did not cross the Mediterranean. Today, Morocco plays much the same role. From the human costs of the US drive against illegal Mexican migrants to the deployment of the Australian navy in its "stop the boats" campaign against refugees, there is little moral about the enforcement of controls. I am not suggesting that there may not be a moral case for immigration controls. But the claim that such controls are a means by which the rich can help the poor is moral hogwash.

Collier's discussion of the impact of immigration on host countries is equally problematic. He accepts that the economic fears are largely misplaced. But, he insists, too much diversity creates social problems, in particular by destroying "mutual regard", the willingness to co-operate and redistribute resources. He draws upon the work of the American sociologist Robert Putnam who has shown that the more diverse a community, the less socially engaged are its members – they vote less, give less to charity, have fewer friends.

Putnam's work has long been seized upon by critics of immigration to suggest that diversity undermines the social fabric. The implications of the data are, however, far from clear. A key problem is that the study offers only a snapshot of attitudes at one moment. Diversity, though, is not a static phenomenon but changes over time, as does our political response to it. Over the past few decades, we have seen the demise of movements for social change, the rise of identity politics, the atomisation of society, a loss of belief in universal values, all of which has led to civic disengagement and a greater sense of anomie. The real problem, then, may not be diversity as such but the political context in which we think about it.

Collier insists on viewing political shifts almost entirely through the lens of diversity. He suggests that recent "policies of reduced taxation and increased reliance on the market" have been shaped by "the pronounced increase in cultural diversity brought about by immigration". Evidence? None. He suggests that the 2011 London riots reflect "a decline in social capital within the indigenous population" caused by immigration having led to "indigenous people" losing trust in one another. Evidence? None.

Collier's policy prescriptions are often as questionable as his analysis. A key argument in Exodus is that the levels both of migration and of problems created by it are linked to the size of diasporas. If there are already large populations of Jamaicans or Bangladeshis in a country, then it is easier for more Jamaicans or Bangladeshis to arrive. At the same time, a sizeable diaspora slows down integration because it is easier to live in enclaves. A vicious cycle, therefore, develops: a large diaspora draws in more fellow-immigrants, hinders integration, makes the diaspora larger, which draws in more fellow-immigrants.

It is a contentious argument, not least because it ignores the policy prescriptions that shape relationships between social groups. Collier's solution is equally contentious: he wants to peg immigration from any group to the size of the existing diaspora, a policy that appears neither practical nor moral.

Collier thinks that immigrants' right to bring in relatives should be cut, partly because it "reduces the incentive to make remittances" (another disingenuous "we are only doing it for your benefit" claim) and partly because indigenous workers don't have the same right (no, their families are mostly here). Any refugee who flees a war, Collier insists, should be sent back the moment the conflict ends. And so on.

Collier is adamant that he is not opposed to immigration, only to its uncontrolled increase. His book has been welcomed as a "humane" intervention in an often toxic debate. All of which probably tells us more about the character of the debate than it does about the merits of Collier's arguments.

Kenan Malik's 'Multiculturalism and Its Discontents' is published by Seagull Books