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Fintan O'Toole: The spectre of the migrant is scaring democracy to death

Cutting the numbers of migrants will not stop the rise of the far-right because the anxieties it exploits are ultimately not about migration

Migrants wait at a naval base in Tripoli, after being rescued in the Mediterranean. Photograph: AFP/Mahmud Turkia/Getty Images

A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of the immigrant. No force is doing more to shape contemporary politics than the fear of mass immigration. Polls show that it was the largest factor in the Brexit referendum two years ago.

It has been relentlessly exploited to create the fear and resentment that have carried the far right into government in Italy, Denmark, Austria and Hungary, into the federal parliament in Germany for the first time since the fall of the Nazis and into contention for power across most of the continent.

This week, it threatened the last pillar of European stability, Angela Merkel, and she has stayed in power only at the expense of a compromise that will probably unravel the Schengen free movement zone. Yet the immigrant at the heart of all of this really is a spectre – a figment of the imagination.

Immigration is real and there is a genuine refugee crisis driven largely by catastrophic wars in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and sub-Saharan Africa. The number of displaced people – 65 million – is equivalent to the entire population of the United Kingdom having been forced to flee and seek sanctuary elsewhere.


And the challenges of dealing with this are also real, even if most of the burden rests on non-European countries, many of them relatively poor. Absorbing large flows of people in a short time is hard to do, especially when those people have different languages and religions. Anxiety is inevitable and it is not necessarily racist or shameful.

The people who are most anxious about migration are the ones who have least contact with migrants. They are afraid, not of the reality, but of the spectres

The exploitation of this anxiety has become so corrosive of democratic values that it is tempting to say that Europe just has to make it stop. There is a poison in the waters and the only way to stop it spreading is to turn off the tap of migration.

If things were really this simple, there would be a moral argument for stopping the flow of migration at all costs – after all what is the point of giving migrants sanctuary on a continent that is not itself going to be safe from fascism? Why bring people to countries where hatred of them will be encouraged by far-right governments?

The problem, though, is that there is no reason to think that the fear of migrants has very much to do with the presence of migrants. In fact, the evidence tends in the opposite direction: the people who are most anxious about migration are the ones who have least contact with migrants. They are afraid, not of the reality, but of the spectres.

Trump to Orbán

In the Brexit referendum two years ago, for example, the single biggest reason cited by Leave voters was immigration and the need to regain control of the UK’s borders. In addition, 80 per cent of Leave voters said they regarded multiculturalism and immigration as “forces for ill”, compared to 19 per cent and 20 per cent respectively of Remain voters.

Yet almost all of the areas with the highest Leave votes had very low levels of inward migration. Of the 270 electoral districts in England and Wales that had a lower proportion than average of people born outside the UK, 229 (85 per cent) voted for Brexit. Conversely, the lowest Leave votes were mainly in urban areas with high immigrant populations.

This is not a British peculiarity. In the United States, Donald Trump’s nightmarish vision of a US swamped by Mexicans and Muslims was most effective in the states with fewest immigrants: he carried 26 of the 30 states where the share of residents born abroad in the population is the smallest.

The truth is that it is not immigration that produces mass anxiety, it is anti-immigrant rhetoric – and especially anti-Muslim rhetoric

In Europe, the most lurid anti-immigrant leader is Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, who has successfully whipped up fears of a Christian nation (and a Christian Europe) being swamped by Muslims, to copperfasten his own increasingly authoritarian rule and proselytise for “illiberal democracy”.

But Hungary’s immigrant population is small: just five per cent of the population. And the vast majority of these are European Union citizens, who are not the target of Orbán’s rhetoric.

So how many non-EU migrants actually live in Hungary? According to Eurostat, it's 191,700. This is the two per cent of the population that is threatening to swamp the other 98 per cent. Conversely, if were looking for a candidate for "swamping", it would be Liechtenstein, where a staggering 65 per cent of the population is made up of immigrants and most of them are from outside the EU. But they're mostly rich, so who cares?

The truth is that it is not immigration that produces mass anxiety, it is anti-immigrant rhetoric – and especially anti-Muslim rhetoric. Antisemitism is alive and well, but Muslims have largely replaced Jews as Europe’s Other – and Islamophobic messaging has been extraordinarily successful in creating a twisted sense of demographic reality.

Distorted perceptions

In 2015, a major Ipsos MORI international survey asked people a very telling question: what percentage of the population of their countries will be Muslim by 2020? The answers show wildly distorted perceptions. In France, the guess was 40 per cent; the reality is 8.5 per cent. In Italy, the guess was 31 per cent; the reality 4.9. Germany was 31 per cent as against 6.9 per cent; Belgium 32 per cent and 7.5 per cent; Hungary 14 per cent and 0.1 per cent; the US 23 per cent and 1.1 per cent.

Migrants have become the lightning rods for all the resentments and apprehensions generated by inequality

This enormous disjunction between perception and actuality is not accidental. It plays on people’s natural tendency to notice difference more than similarity, and it probably reflects to some extent a hypervigilance created by Islamist terrorism.

But it is hyperinflated by bad politics. Hungarians don’t get their guesses about Muslims wrong by 13,900 per cent because they’re bad at sums. They get them wrong because what they are really counting are not people but spectres – apparitions conjured up for them by Orbán and the media he controls.

But how do you get rid of phantoms? How to you kill a ghost? If there were a direct relationship between the rise of the far right and the number of immigrants, the far right would be in rapid decline in Europe. There was a massive 44 per cent decline in the number of asylum seekers entering the EU last year compared to 2016.

But the political evidence would suggest that the number of spectral migrants is growing. Precisely because they are figments of the dark side of the European imagination, summoned by the same necromancers who called up the Jewish conspiracy, the Asiatic hordes and the Yellow Peril, their physical presence is not really the point.

It is true, of course, that the more orderly migration is, the better – and equally true that the EU could do a great deal to make migration more orderly. But the real challenge is to create a different imaginative force, to counter anxiety with hope, insecurity with reassurance. Migrants, as so often before, have become the lightning rods for all the resentments and apprehensions generated by inequality, austerity and the loss of hope that the future will be better than the past.

Misperceptions of migration turn truly toxic when they are thrown into a cocktail of other worries about unemployment, static wages and the erosion of the social market and the welfare state. Those phantoms need to be exorcised – or else the spectre of the migrant will scare democracy to death.