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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Morality and Immigration

Prof. Asa Kasher, Dr. Fiamma Nirenstein
Morality and Immigration
Syrian refugee children attend a class at a makeshift school in a tent at an informal tented settlement near the Syrian border on the outskirts of Mafraq, Jordan, 2015. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

Mass immigration is the most complicated moral issue arising in international relations today.

Issues of “just war” and “just fighting” during wars are of much importance, but generally, the issues of immigration are more complicated.

When discussing immigration, first of all, the moral assumptions that lie behind it should be made clear.

“Responsibility:” A Word to Be Taken Seriously

The most important moral concept relating to immigration is responsibility – in this case, the responsibility of governments. While it is clear that Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), citizens, charities, and similar bodies and even some individuals also bear some responsibility, the most important responsibility lies with governments. A country bears –

  1. First responsibility, of course, toward its own citizens, and that includes providing them with security, health, education, transportation, and employment.
  2. Responsibility for those people who are not citizens, don’t vote, and don’t have citizenship but who live within the country’s borders. As these residents conduct their entire lives in this country, the government has a serious responsibility toward them that is similar to the one for regular citizens. This is because the presence of these non-citizens is an ingredient of the local society and thus affects the country’s way of life.
  3. Responsibility for any action it performs affects beyond its borders: For example, if Israel does something that affects life in Jordan, Israel will then be partly responsible for what happens in Jordan as a result of these activities.
  4. Responsibilities created by previous generations that still affect the current situation, such as the colonial issue.
  5. The responsibilities that arise from being a nation-state. Beyond being an independent state, it has a history that embodies an identity that forms a nation. In Israel, we are the nation-state of the Jewish people. In other examples, Poland belongs to the Polish people, Hungary to the Hungarians, and Finland to the Finns, etc. For many countries, the basis of their existence is their relationship to a nation that exists even without a state, the latter being the consequence of their efforts to implement this original identity. Whereas in the United States, you first have to get a passport before you can become a member of the civil nation, another common process is the reverse. If you are born into a particular historical nation, you are related to its nation-state. For example, if your heritage is Finnish or Greek, you are connected to Finland or Greece. As the constitutive element of the existence of a nation-state is being a part of the nation to which most of its citizens belong, that state will have certain duties of care toward members of that nation, wherever they are. For example, if a Jew living in Brooklyn chooses to remain there, Israel is not usually responsible for his well-being. However, if he is persecuted for being a Jew, Israel has a responsibility to provide him with a safe haven and approach the relevant authorities to demand his protection. This is a clear example of a nation-state’s general responsibility.
  6. Responsibility toward humanity, which means taking the concept of responsibility to a broader, further extent. Basically, we are responsible for anybody who suffers, as long as we are able to practically shoulder that responsibility. Whenever and wherever people are suffering, nobody can afford to turn a blind eye.

What Can Be Done?

The question that arises is: “What can I – what can anyone – do within the framework of our abilities and activities?” The answer to this question must be sincere and responsible. Every case of human suffering is our business. For instance, we, the Jewish people, rightly complain about the fact that the American and British forces did not do enough to rescue Jews and stop the annihilation of the Jews during the years of the Holocaust. Jewish suffering, being an extreme case of human suffering, was their business, but they did almost nothing.

While one should never ignore human suffering in any situation, it is still necessary to measure the possibilities of offering help. Sometimes the answer may be, “Sorry, presently I can’t do anything of real significance.” Can I solve India’s problems? In general, I don’t think I can.

However, if there is a catastrophe and I can help, I must do so because human suffering ought to be relevant, and the answer must be part of my framework of activities. Israel has shown an excellent aptitude for this, providing humanitarian assistance in many situations of natural disasters, where rescue operations are crucial. Of course, this cannot rest on the state harming the welfare of its own citizens to help others. It is, however, required to do its best in the face of human suffering.

When it comes to immigration, the attitude must be the same. The questions and answers must be honest and straightforward. A state ought to decide what it can and what it cannot do. The concept of a “nation-state” must not be used as an excuse to avoid any responsibility, even if it is understood that the consequences of a state being a nation-state are much more significant than what Europe thinks.

For instance, when Hungary completely closes its door to immigration, attributing this move to a desire to preserve its national identity, there is a problem that must be identified and faced. As a Catholic culture, giving charity is presumably an element of Hungary’s identity as a nation-state. Therefore, while Hungary may not be able to do very much as a country, there still seems to be no justification for doing nothing at all, totally ignoring the immigration question, rejecting even the asylum seekers with the gravest circumstances.

Immigration: A Complex, Multifaceted Phenomenon

After the question of responsibility, there comes the problem of absorption. Once a migrant arrives on our soil, what should be done with him? There are so many stages of immigration, and to deal with the whole problem, we must look at all of them. The preliminary problem is how to define the different stages involved in becoming an immigrant. This is an extremely complex process, and it is necessary to use a flexible and multifaceted approach to help the people going through it. Every step along the way is complicated. Migration is not just a movement of people. It’s not that one day they are here, and tomorrow you will see them elsewhere. There are many stops along the way, each with their own problems that all require different, proper solutions.

First of all, what are the migrant’s country of origin and its government like? For instance, if he flees from Africa, we have to look at his country to understand its problems. These problems may be connected to the politics of that country’s government. Therefore, we could try putting our efforts into helping to improve its politics and obliging the leadership to examine its citizens’ problems and improve their living conditions, if possible.

Furthermore, beyond the duty of helping their own citizens, these countries of origin have a duty to control their borders. Usually, the border areas of these countries become zones for smuggling, crime, slavery, exploitation, and violence. These countries need to deal with these issues, while the countries of destination can help with finding solutions to these problems and strengthening the borders.

The paths that people follow on their way to Europe are often arranged according to certain unwritten rules. For example, migrants from Syria often go to Turkey, from where they move on to Italy, and from there to Germany. These routes need thorough security and well-being checks, and certain precautions should be taken. Who is monitoring these routes?

In Africa, these routes are particularly complicated. A migrant may travel from Nigeria to Chad and from there to Libya. At the Libyan shore, he is crammed onto a boat to Europe. Many arrival points serve as a passage to another destination, and this also needs to be clarified before making any final decision regarding where migrants should go.

International policing also plays a big role in avoiding tragic situations, such as mass casualties at sea. International controls and collaboration between the police, coast guards, and immigration authorities of the various countries involved can save many lives.

Then, there is the question of borders. This is obviously important, but differences between circumstances must be identified and faced. In a case of a ship adrift with children and their mothers, simply closing the doors is not the solution. All the more so, when their destination is unknown, and their health conditions have not been scrutinized.

An issue of an utterly different nature, related to another stage of immigration, is that of long-term or second- and third-generation immigrants. Obviously, those already living in our countries have a different status. They may be already integrated and have children identifying with the local culture. How should we deal with them? Conversely, if they adhere to a different culture and religion, should we push them toward integration, embracing our cultures, or should we encourage them to maintain their own traditions?

There are so many questions, and they are all difficult and equally fundamental. All of them require a very developed moral and legal definition. “Being in favor” or “against” immigration is not a true sentiment, because the issue is so complex and unclear. Every stage must be investigated, conceptualized, understood, and integrated into a general framework of statehood, citizenship, responsibility, and respect for human dignity.

The Moral Aspect of the Immigration Issue

Each issue involves a long learning process required for determining what should be done to act morally and justly for all concerned. An immigrant may pass through 10 stations before he can be even defined as such, and none of them have yet been analyzed as necessary. This superficiality in analyzing the problem is an obstacle for trying to solve it morally and practically.

First and foremost, when it comes to issues related to immigration, the moral aspect ought to be given priority. A moral compass must be used to face, delineate, analyze, and solve the problem under consideration. The ethical aspect must always remain our guiding light.

Responsibility is the keyword: the entire spectrum of responsibilities must be applied here, toward both the migrants and the indigenous population alike.

This varies significantly from country to country. For example, in Israel, a group of people may have been allowed into the country 10 years ago, and they integrated into Israeli society. Their children were born with Hebrew as their native language, some of them want to serve in the army, and their world, friends, culture, and food are all Israeli. In this case, the country has complete responsibility toward these people, and they should be recognized as immigrants, and then as residents.

Another factor to consider is a number limit. It is very important for each country to define a limit to the number of immigrants they can take in and absorb.

If a country takes its own needs into account and establishes a limit, it has a totally different kind of responsibility. It may decide that, according to its specific situation, the presence of a large number of migrants is too much, so it tries to keep them out. This was the case with several European countries, including Greece, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bosnia Herzegovina, and even Norway and Denmark in Western Europe. However, absolute refusal to allow people into the state, come what may, is never justified. The minimal number possible and justifiable is never zero.

In fact, each country should be allowed to impose a limit on immigration because accepting too many migrants may jeopardize its nation-state’s identity and stability. This limit is based on realistic assumptions like how many people you can give refuge to and provide with employment and housing, as well as factors such as freedom of religion, without significantly changing or jeopardizing the given character of the state. This calculation should not only be made by looking at the present situation, but also by considering the long run. What will happen in 20 or 40 years from now is also a question to be responsibly answered.

Concrete Steps for Finding a Moral Solution to the Immigration Issue

Once a state has decided, in accordance with its conscience and sense of general responsibility, how many migrants it has already and how many more it can accept, the next issue to examine is how to ease the problems in the countries of origin. This does not mean that efforts toward those countries have not been made, but history has shown that there needs to be much more effort and better organization. While Europe cannot solve all of Africa’s problems, it also cannot absorb all of the Africans who want to leave.

Europe must, therefore, adopt a policy of decisive intervention in the African economy. This does not only refer to providing immediate help to NGOs and humanitarian projects. This kind of assistance will probably help about 10,000 people a year. While this is a significant total, it is not enough in comparison to Africa’s many problems. Help must be provided differently, under the banner: “build, build, build.”

Germany and Spain are currently spending billions of dollars on absorbing new migrants. Yet this money would be much better spent on creating new cities, employment opportunities, factories, schools, hospitals, and other facilities to make life easier in the native countries of these migrants. The European Union, United Nations, and everybody else should contribute to this endeavor. For instance, Israel has great experience with agriculture and water engineering, which it can share to create a better world.

Many migrants travel abroad in search of help, pushed by dire necessity. But if life in their native countries improves, they themselves will want to go back home. To facilitate this possibility, a process can be created whereby, while they are abroad, they can prepare themselves to return home. This includes being able to plan how long they need to stay, and when they will be able to go back to their native countries.

In addition, under a variety of circumstances, particularly when migrants don’t know what their destiny will be, it would be helpful to have temporary accommodations for them that are not concentration camps or similar sites. In these places, they should be able to cultivate their talents and benefit from medical centers, kindergartens, and schools. These should be places where they can live and not simply survive for months, whether they return to their home countries or move on to Germany or France.

The migrant camps in Turkey and Libya featured in news reports will not help to solve the problems of immigration. The objective should be to establish a full migration program for long-range transit, providing reasonable living conditions. This will put a stop to growing crime rates and provide the migrants with all their humanitarian needs. While it would be very hard to administer such a program, even for the United Nations, it would benefit the entire world. It would require a great deal of money and expertise, but it may be the only way to deal with the permanent movement and passage.


The keyword is respect. What is the difference between a person who risks his life in search of better living conditions and a refugee who is running for his life from ISIS? At first, there seems to be little difference between either of them. It can be hard to differentiate between all of the different kinds of migrants and their various needs. But the difference will eventually become apparent if we create reception centers in the form of towns where each migrant can express his talents and fulfill his requirements. These centers could become a training ground for their new lives as expatriates.

It takes time and effort to differentiate and to know what must be done in each case. It is not always possible to do it at the beginning when the migrants first emerge from the sea, but ideally, there should be practical ways of doing it properly.

Viewing all migrants as a mass of people who are either ripe for joining terrorist organizations or becoming criminals is pure imagination. The Western world, including the United States, Israel, and Europe, has excellent means for identifying and fighting terrorism. Screaming and yelling about the danger will certainly not help to fight it. Existing dangers should be fought by enforcing the law and enhancing international cooperation. Actually, the number of those who migrate for such negative reasons does not represent the majority.

Another controversial issue is that migrants often send the public funding that they receive from the countries hosting them to their families back home. In general, their aim, which can be controlled, is to build a home for these families. This is not a bad practice. It means that their presence is temporary, as they intend to return to their native countries within a few years. One goal may, therefore, be to draw up an agreement with these migrants to provide them with housing and work over a limited period. For example, they could be allowed to stay in the host country for five years, after which they would need to go back to their native lands, if possible.

Even the best studies on immigration have not yet created a list of possibilities and difficulties or designed a reasonable limit on the percentage of a country’s total population that migrants can form before this proportion becomes unmanageable. For example, while 7 percent may be considered a sustainable number, other opinions may differ. When making this decision, the prevailing opinion should only be motivated and weighted by crucial considerations, not by superficial attitudes even if they are popular.

Most of all, this issue should be totally excluded by law from any political platform. Just as there are no elections on democracy, immigration is also an ancient and crucial issue that must not be carried by the tides of politics. Just as democratic politics is not a matter of political debate, but is the framework of the debate, respect and responsibility should form the framework of the political discourse on immigration. Helping other human beings is what lies at the core of a decent existence. However, we also cannot ignore the fact that immigration is a problem with many dimensions, including how to provide migrants with practical help and educate them to integrate into their host country.

Culture and Integration

Integration can either run smoothly or be very hard, depending very much on the situation. To define this issue further requires much profound study that should be divided into various aspects.

Differences in culture and dress can be a big issue that should be handled with balance and determination. Migrants can remain within the boundaries of their own culture only up to the point where they don’t cause any harm to the nations that host them, including to their security, religion, and women.

While hosting migrants, it’s hard to expect them to become really interested in democracy. They are often unfamiliar with it, don’t want it, and have no preference for this system. In this case, the host country must be careful not to compromise or change the nature of its own democracy. It hopes that the migrants will behave accordingly, respecting laws and most cultural practices. In the United States, to become a citizen you must take examinations. You must be able to answer certain questions about the rights of citizens and speak English. However, in Europe, the situation is a little different.

The widespread presence of Muslim immigrants in Paris, for instance, has created situations of polygamy. However, this should be prohibited. The protection of human dignity, as the German Constitution says, is of utmost importance. Of course, this should be a two-way street, with mutual respect on both sides. Our concept of dignity forbids a man to have more than one wife or to harass women in the streets, as sometimes happens in Europe. However, as there are different issues, solutions may be different. Switzerland forbids the construction of minarets because they would change the landscape of that nation. The Swiss don’t want to change their Christian environment, and they want their landscape to express their original culture. In Switzerland, this is a serious issue. In French schools, girls are forbidden to cover their heads. This is a controversial issue that seems to have gone too far as Jewish boys wear a kippa, and they are also not allowed to wear it in school. This rule seems unnecessary and morally unjustifiable and is a nasty way of creating personal regrets and rage.

In 1995, I was invited by the German army to speak about the code of ethics in our army, the IDF (Israel Defense Forces). Afterward, I wrote:

It was very moving to see eastern German young men, previously soldiers of East Germany, merging with the Westerners who were their enemies until a very short time ago. They had to be completely reeducated to be in the German army as they only knew German history from the Soviet side. They were taken to Auschwitz, were educated for about one year about democracy, and from then on they had a new start as German citizens. It took time, but this is the way to create a democratic citizen.

Today, in Germany, you don’t see any significant Eastern anti-democratic enclaves. While there is an extreme nationalist party, it did not originate in Eastern Germany. It was founded in the heart of Western Germany.

Among Muslim migrants, extremism is certainly an issue. However, some balance is also required here. In Israel, the Arab faction in the Knesset (Israeli parliament) appears to be really extreme. Its members are often aggressive, always issuing harsh criticisms, always seem to be hostile. But Israeli Arabs generally do not behave like this. Many of them are proud to be Israeli, and they want to educate their children with Jewish ones. They seek better education and welfare for their families. They follow their own interests and wishes and have no time nor desire for hate.

This is the case in various communities all around the world. There is usually a minority that hates, while the majority wants to live in peace and prosperity. Extremism can pose a challenge to the immigrants, but again the answer is found within education. The first Israeli Arab to get a PhD in computer sciences in Israel was a 26-year-old woman who studied at the Technion in Haifa. Her family helped, and the university nurtured and encouraged her. Another example is the Druse community, which has its own religion similar to Islam. They are completely integrated within Israeli society, serving in every unit of the army, including the most confidential intelligence units, with excellent results.


The issue of immigration has attracted overwhelming attention from politicians and the media, both of which are interested in the conflict. The public, which enjoys watching the media debate, is a victim of polarization between the staunch defenders and accusers of the immigrants that has been created by politicians and the media.

For this reason, the major victim of this fight is the truth.

As part of the moral struggle to create a just attitude toward immigration, it is necessary to break the situation down into exact conceptual parts by asking questions: How many migrants are involved? Where are they from? Who are they? What are their intentions? Where do they want to live? What are the realistic possibilities of each nation-state taking care of them? How harmful is the presence of the migrants to the well-being, security, and culture of the host country?

Secondly, without proper education, migration is simply impossible. However, education goes both ways. On the one hand, we have to respect human rights, which means providing aid and taking responsibility for the migrants. But on the other hand, it is also important not to ignore the national identity of the receiving state, and immigrants must be absolutely aware of this. Yet today, they have no idea about it.

Whenever the population of the host country and their leaders raise this issue, it is dangerous to accuse them of propagating Fascism. Whenever I am a guest in another country, I must respect their identity, whether it is Italian, Polish, or Hungarian. When the right to one’s own national identity is refused or rejected, this heightens the risk of raising the tones of extreme nationalism. The more human rights activists ignore the human right of respect for one’s culture, the more the nationalists will take the upper hand in creating rules to determine by strength that which is denied by reasoning and civilized discussion.

In other words, the first rule is to tone down the rhetoric and go back to basics. Look at precise numbers and information, with the understanding that this problem will continue to exist no matter what we decide to do. It is argued that as there are 50 million migrants around the world, this phenomenon will affect several generations.

The second rule is to create a gradual program, without any pretense of impersonating justice or identity, human rights or the rule of law. Aims must be defined according to an agreed timetable that also involves the migrants’ countries of origin.

As the immigration issue encompasses the concepts of human dignity and rights, identity, education, development, and nationalism, all of these should be included in the efforts to find a solution, and this should be done quietly, firmly, and responsibly.