Where the Angels Fear to Tread

Updated: Jul 16, 2020

- Immigration, Population and the Identity Question -

Keywords: Population Growth; Political Ecology; Immigration; Identity; Islam

"Immigration is one of the most significant things affecting all political decision-making, and all public concerns across Europe. It is a huge issue that raises every imaginable question about the society you are in. What is the society you are in? What can it tolerate and what it cannot tolerate? What is an acceptable level of immigration? What is a level that fundamentally alters a society? These are massive questions that we are barely at the beginning of addressing.

- Douglas Murray – The Strange Death of Europe 23/05/2019, in YouTube

Our world is changing. The biophysical stability of our environment is gradually caving in. The Holocene which allowed for humanity to thrive might come to a halt and with it our dreams of maintaining this global and burgeoning apparatus we call civilization.

Facing such a precarious plight, the human population still keeps on increasing by roughly 80 million people every year (net gain), inescapably condemning many to a fate utterly unrecognizable to the warm welcome we have received on this planet in millennia. As a result, multitudes will be forced to move in search of shelter, security, subsistence and dignity.

In my previous work, The Human Overpopulation Atlas, I attempted to condense the first batch of problems created and intensified by the inescapable circumstance of our ever-increasing numbers. This led me to draft chapters on the multifarious ecological and environmental predicaments of our own making, on the state of the discourse and the carelessness and derision surrounding it, and eventually, to how the projected rise of the human population combined with all the biophysical changes occurring within our planet, will induce thousands of millions to immigrate. For this reason, the chapter on immigration was titled ‘Exodus.’

As I described in the Atlas, Exodus ended up just being a preliminary study of the themes that surrounded immigration. For simplicity and clarity, I decided to mostly confine my examination to the anthropogenic drivers that induce the forced movement of peoples from their homes and to seek other lands to re-settle. However, that was just a glimpse of the full story, and before expanding on that, an abbreviated revision of the current state of affairs is justified.

Current data indicates that in 2016, there were 40.3 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) worldwide and 22.5 million refugees, with roughly 227.6 million people having been uprooted due to environmental hazards from 2008 to 2016. At present, only estimates can be conjectured, nonetheless with an unstable climate, rising sea-levels, ecological degradation, food and water insecurity, depletion of natural resources and a growing human population, projections of hundreds of millions or even billions on the move by the end of this century are well within conceivable expectations.

Along these lines, in the Making Sense podcast, neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris was joined by the author and climate expert Joseph Romm, who stated:

“If the planet warmed 2ºC and stopped we would probably adapt. It wouldn’t mean that probably two billion people wouldn’t have to move, and these numbers of climate refugees would be a catastrophe. We saw how 2-3 million refugees from Syria turned global politics upside down.”

Alternatively, as the author Jeff Goodell put it in The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World:

[Such a rise in sea-level would]”create generations of climate refugees that will make today's Syrian war refugee crisis look like a high school drama production.”

Such a prognostication would be, in all by itself, devastating to the people fleeing these conditions and to the ones whose lives will be profoundly altered by the corresponding surges of immigration. Without a doubt, humanity should do everything in its power to prevent such scenarios from ever unfolding. Nevertheless, there are already existing problems with immigration.

One central point in the discussion of current trends and future projections regarding immigration needs to be established from the start. That is that ‘the numbers, the speed and the scale do matter’ as the author and political commentator Douglas Murray reminds us (I will regularly cite Mr Murray throughout this piece, as he is a sober and lucid voice in the themes that I’m about to introduce.) To point out, in 2016, the vice-president of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, disclosed how 60 percent of the arrivals reaching Europe were considered economic migrants, and not legitimate cases of refugee status. Economic deprivation, as dreadful as it is, doesn’t constitute a justifiable claim for asylum, which stands as a person fleeing war, violence, conflict or persecution. Then again, Europe and its people cannot possibly cope with the ambition of millions to seek its shores. It is unavoidable that the desire to be generous with the whole world will eventually come into conflict with the fairness that the European people deserve. As Mr Murray upholds when illustrating the dichotomy of competing virtues (justice and mercy):

“In search to be merciful, we have given up the idea that there should be any justice for the peoples of Europe.”

He goes on to add:

“Can Europe be the home to anyone who moves in and wants to call it home? The answer is obviously not. We basically think of ourselves as this continent that can keep taking people in, without realizing we are in this lifeboat ourselves. We need to work out how many people we can save from the undoubtedly terrible waters all around us, what our limits might be and where we sadly have to say ‘no.’ Lifeboats usually have that warning of limited capacity, well, we don’t have that. There is no warning in Europe for its maximum capacity. What we do have is that the people in the boat, if they think that it’s getting very dangerous have the right to say to the captain, ‘stop bringing people on board!’ That is the only safety valve we have, and if the captain says ‘I’m not listening to you because you must be racist,’ then we are in a real trouble.

To this extent, I find it pertinent to explore what the peoples of Europe are thinking about immigration and how to manage a world on the move. For starters, where do sustainable population advocates stand on these issues?

An Undesirable Alliance?

One of the central principles proposed by the sustainable population movement (SPM) is the reduction of immigration rates to overdeveloped countries. This is described as ‘Malthusian restrictionism,’ and it is based on the view that checks on immigration are ethically justifiable when taking into account the degradation of the environment. Provided that individuals in the most overdeveloped countries have some of the highest carbon and ecological footprints of the whole of humanity, it follows that immigration into those countries will create more top-of-the-chain consumers, exacerbating an already disquieting situation of overshoot. Considering such a scenario, the SPM encourages both the decrease in per-capita consumption (first and foremost on wealthier nations) as well as the reduction in fertility rates on a worldwide scale, by the voluntary decision to adopt a small-family model.

Coincidentally, the other group that has made the regulation of immigration the bedrock of their vocation have been the alleged “populist,” “nationalistic,” or “far-right” governments. Indeed, countries such as Italy, Hungary, Poland, Austria, France, Czech Republic, Estonia, Slovenia, Germany, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, Denmark and even Spain have recently witnessed an ascension of right-wing conservative sentiment.

Their desire to toughen up migration policies hails from and spans a wide variety of concerns such as identity, social cohesion and trust, culture, and the discrepancy in shared liberal values such as freedom of speech; separation of church and state; women, minorities, and same-sex rights. There is also an apprehension that integration has not been as successful as it was portrayed to be since Europeans are worried there is a willingness of immigrants to ‘want to be distinct from our society,’ creating parallel societies in the process. The Islamic religion is also under the microscopes of European citizens, with Mr Murray citing unsettling polls in his debate with Bernard Henri-Lévi titled Can Europe survive the new wave of populism?

  • A poll in 2013 in Germany found that 7% of the German public said they associated Islam with tolerance or respect for human rights.

  • Another poll from 2013 in France found that 67% of the French public think that Islam is, “incompatible with the French state.” Also, 73% of the French in 2013 said they viewed the religion very negatively (the poll was of course made before the terror attacks in France and elsewhere).

  • 68% of the Dutch public said in the same year that there is “enough Islam in the Netherlands.”

Besides all of these points, governments are also reducing the inflow from immigration due to native demographic decline. As Shaun Walker explains in The Guardian:

Demographic decline is a problem in many societies in central and eastern Europe, with millions of people leaving countries such as Hungary, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria in the years after their accession to the EU for higher salaries in Western Europe. This, combined with low birth rates, has contributed to shrinking populations and fueled fears of dying communities across the region.”

The juxtaposition of a declining native population, the desire of millions to call Europe their home, as well as the different birth rates between natives and foreign-born, has inflamed the angst of population replacement as a real concern for these nations. Hungary’s Prime Minister has asserted:

“In all of Europe there are fewer and fewer children, and the answer of the West to this is migration. They want as many migrants to enter as there are missing kids, so that the numbers will add up. We Hungarians have a different way of thinking. Instead of just numbers, we want Hungarian children. Migration for us is surrender.”

Each one of these issues is a contemporary minefield in itself. Those that have held such positions or have attempted to dissect their legitimacy have repeatedly been characterized as racist, xenophobic, intolerant, sectarian or nationalist, at the very least inviting wariness of ulterior motives or are accused of ‘adjacency’ with less favored individuals. I don’t just resist the temptation of plainly branding these concerns has racist et al. (although there are certainly those individuals that hold such attitudes), but I find myself skeptical of the childlike ‘justification’ that suddenly millions of Europeans have found it appealing to gravitate towards such views. Alternatively, it is often suggested that they are being deceived by compelling and bewitching demagogues, instead of the more rational explanation that the citizens of the continent are changing their views because they are witnessing a reality that politicians can’t fully grasp.

Much more disquieting should be the ‘cordon sanitaire’ that has been enforced around the discussion of these heterogeneous and complex problems, which appears to be a cop out and a profoundly intellectual dishonest way of not having to deal with uncomfortable subjects. Accordingly, the benefits of immigration have been echoed and reinforced for decades, while other less favorable peculiarities have been systematically stifled or reserved to the more unpleasant fringes of parlance. Notwithstanding, it should go without saying that there are plentiful of advantages to individuals and societies that emerge from immigration and exposure to other cultures as well as countless cases in which people do assimilate and become as European as any other native individual.

The intent of this essay should be made clear. Voices imparting conservative notions that societies and cultures are of a fragile fabric and should be handled with care have been consistently vilified, misrepresented and suppressed. Individuals and governments alike holding such views should be given a proper trial, since not only are we talking about sovereign nations, which have the full right and power of governing themselves and deciding the make-up of their demographics without outside interference, it is also the case that these governments have also been democratically elected.

The aim here is to audit these considerations and leave it to the reader to adjudge their legitimacy so that advocates of a sustainable human population and the movement itself can decide if there is enough common ground and if the disagreements are not too extensive, for a viable alliance and mutual understanding to be made. Judging by the urgency and dimension of the threats facing humanity and the living world, should the SPM attempt to build bridges with these parties and the societal momentum they enjoy, or would such an arrangement cause more harm than good, by driving away the limited support the movement enjoys? Taking into account that the two of the most significant winners of the recent European elections appear to have been both the Greens and the Center-right/Right parties, the suggestion moving forward would be for both fronts to contemplate uniting efforts. Provided that happens, the right could embrace the environmental concerns that have been for a long-time espoused by more left-leaning politics, while themselves bringing into the table their conservative considerations.


Reductions in the rates of immigration are a common goal, although both are being encouraged on entirely different grounds. Demonstrably, time and time again the residents of Europe (and worldwide) have asserted their concerns with immigration, plainly voicing their anxiety and willingness to allow ‘fewer or no more immigration’ or ‘about the same’ numbers (here, here, here). To grasp the animus behind this interest in reducing immigration to Europe, one must first contemplate why the continent has maintained high immigration rates for so long despite the public’s requests? Mr Murray suggests that there is a schism between citizens and their elected representatives, with the latter ignoring an essential principle of democracy, that leaders listen to the public and act on their behalf.

For instance, a poll by Project 28 gathered the opinions from 1,000 respondents in each of the 28 countries of the EU, and more than three-quarters (78 percent) of EU citizens favor a stricter stance on external border protection, with the number rising to nine in ten in central and eastern European countries. To say nothing of the poll that revealed a majority of Europeans to want a ban from Muslim-majority countries, after the Trump administration listed several nations on a travel ban. From the ten countries polled, only two of them, Spain and Britain did not attain a positive majority response to the question “all further migration from mainly Muslim countries should be stopped.” They reached, respectively, only 41 and 47 percent.

The alienation between the public and the political class, on the subject of immigration, might explain why the few politicians that do indeed act on behalf of their electorate appear to draw so much support even if these end up upholding questionable policies and falling on the right end of the political spectrum. A particularly fitting example would be that of an interview between Polish Member of Parliament and Vice-President of the Conservative group in Council of Europe, Dominik Tarczyński and news anchor Cathy Newman:

- Cathy Newman: “How many refugees has Poland taken?”
- Dominik Tarczyński: “Zero.”
- CN: “And you’re proud of that?”
- DT: “If you’re asking me about Muslim illegal immigration, none, not even one will come to Poland, if it’s illegal. We took over 2 million Ukrainians who are working and are peaceful in Poland, and we will not receive not even one Muslim because this is what we promised […] this is what our people are expecting from our government, this is why our government was elected […] we can be called populists, nationalists, racists, I don’t care. I care about my family and my country.”

If politicians already fear to tread on the issue of immigration, then the subsequent outcomes of demographics and ethnic population growth (either from immigration or higher fertility rates) are out of bounds for the majority of elected leaders. Still, the publics of Europe (70 percent) recognize that the ‘rapid population growth of Muslims’ is either a ‘somewhat serious’ or ‘very serious’ risk to Europe.

Once again, this isn’t to say that integration isn’t compatible with individuals of the Muslim faith or that one must endorse a zero-tolerance immigration policy. However, the systematic stigmatization of concerns about immigration as racist, nationalistic or populist, instead of the concession that the people might be onto something, is worth delving into.

Isaac Asimov is credited with the quote: “Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” Likewise, are European’s assumptions regarding the demographics of ethnic groups, particularly those which are increasingly reaching Europe from areas such as Sub-Sahara, the Middle East and Asia, or the growth of the Muslim population and the threat of ‘Islamization’ of the continent correct, or are they in need of a little scrub? An analysis of the evidence is required.

In late 2017, the Pew Research Center released the studyEurope’s Growing Muslim Population,” which consisted of three different models of projections of population growth depending on future levels of immigration. The study starts by declaring that:

"Even if all migration into Europe were to immediately and permanently stop – a “zero migration” scenario – the Muslim population of Europe still would be expected to rise from the current level of 4.9% to 7.4% by the year 2050. This is because Muslims are younger (by 13 years, on average) and have higher fertility (one child more per woman, on average) than other Europeans, mirroring a global pattern.”

Naturally, a zero-migration scenario is not likely to happen. Consequently, the Pew Research Center came up with two additional scenarios. The “medium” scenario relies on the assumption that all refugee flows will cease, but levels of the “regular” migration to Europe will continue (i.e., economic migration). Under such a condition, the Muslim population could be expected to reach 11.2% of Europe’s population by 2050. Lastly, a “high” migration scenario forecasts the record flow of refugees into Europe between 2014 and 2016 to continue with the same religious composition, in addition to the “regular” flow of migration already delineated in the “medium” scenario. In such a scenario, Muslims could rise to 14% of Europe’s population – nearly triple of its current percentage – in the space of three decades. Equally important, there would also be significant differences between the overall demographics of each country, with countries such as Germany, Sweden, France, the UK, Italy and Norway maintaining a percentage above the medians in both the medium and high scenarios.

To this extent, it isn’t entirely incoherent for individuals in Europe to be showing uneasiness about the demographic prospects of the continent and aligning themselves with parties on the political right since these appear to be the only ones directing attention to this issue. Sidestepping this conversation or tainting these apprehensions only as xenophobia, racism or bigotry is not just intellectually lazy but it is also fueling other more extreme views. Notwithstanding, concerns over demographic replacement are just the tip of the iceberg. What a substantial segment of the peoples of Europe appear to be genuinely concerned is over the failures of integration and the rise of parallel societies and values; the push to embrace multiculturalism; and if Europe takes in the world, will it end up resembling Europe or the rest of the world?


In his 2017 best-selling book ‘The Strange Death of Europe – Immigration, Identity, Islam,’ Douglas Murray often divulged with sorrow how commentators and detractors alike devoted themselves to the factors of Immigration and Islam, while completely disregarding or evading his thesis on the Identity component.

Mr Murray makes use of the analogy of the ship of Theseus to depict this conundrum of the identity of Europe. Like the ship in which Theseus sailed faced decay, the Athenians replaced the original parts with new ones. In this thought experiment, the question of identity is raised. If all the original components of the ship were replaced, does it remain fundamentally the same object? At what point do these changes make the original object unrecognizable? Along these lines, Mr. Murray argues that with the changes the continent is undergoing, at what point in the future will Europe stop being Europe and become something else? Perhaps we should think of our societies less as these flexible structures that can withstand any amount of transformation and still maintain their integrity intact, and more like fragile ecosystems that might easily break down if we start fragmenting them.

Garett Jones, author, senior scholar and professor, has written extensively about immigration and how the receiving countries change in the process. He asks several questions:

“What happens in the very long run? As immigrants shape the culture of their new homelands, will they import more than just new ethnic cuisines? Will migrants make the countries they move to a lot like the countries they came from?"

As Douglas Murray describes in The Strange Death of Europe:

“To wander the district of Saint-Denis today is to see a district more resembling North Africa than France. The market square outside the basilica is a souk more than a market. Stalls sell different styles of hijab and radical groups hand out literature against the state. This area has one of the highest Muslim populations in France, around 30 per cent […] The same feeling will strike anybody travelling through certain towns in Northern England, or neighborhoods of Rotterdam and Amsterdam. Today it can also be experienced in the suburbs of Stockholm and Malmö. These are places where the immigrant live, but they bear no resemblance to the areas inhabited by the locals.”

Besides this point of immigration shaping surrounding areas so that these appear more like the countries many have left behind, Gareth Jones’ research focuses on other more significant reactions of immigration. In particular, the apparent situation in which many migrant attitudes persist on to their descendants and that these together tend to influence the attitudes of their new fellow citizens, so that all groups in society become at least a bit like each other. In this osmotic process, both parties would exchange knowledge and culture, hopefully culminating in a process in which the two would change, grow and prosper.

Although cases of synergy do invariably happen, we also need to be cognizant of where they don’t, or what exactly is Europe willing to forfeit in this assimilation. The first is a consideration that has eluded politicians and more left-leaning journalists alike. Specifically, individuals who arrive in Europe aren’t blank slates, which immediately incorporate the norms, values, culture and progress in ideas and concepts that have occurred throughout the West. Much more likely is the scenario in which immigrants bring their particular realizations and views of the world, and that these might be more resilient than assumed and even antagonistic to the foundations of the continent. As Mr Murray affirms in the Making Sense podcast with Sam Harris:

“To just walk into Europe and to immediately breathe the air of Voltaire and St Paul, Dante, Goethe and Bach, it seems highly unlikely. [It is assumed] that everyone who comes, arrives at the same point that we are at in regards to our views on religion, the separation of church and state, or the views on all sorts of humans rights questions. It seems very implausible.”

Undoubtedly, this is only made worse if immigrants are impelled to resist assimilation as it was the case at a rally in Cologne back in 2008, when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (then Prime-Minister), addressed Turks living in Germany, Belgium, France and the Netherlands and said:

“I understand very well that you are against assimilation. One cannot expect you to assimilate. Assimilation is a crime against humanity. Yes, integrate yourselves into German society but don’t assimilate yourselves. Our children must learn German but they must learn Turkish first.”

Or as the American of Palestinian descent Linda Sarsour instigated:

“Our number one and top priority is to protect and defend our community. It is not to assimilate and to please any other people in authority. Our obligation is to our young people, is to our women, to make sure our women are protected in our community, and our top priority, even higher than all those priorities, is to please Allah and only Allah.”

Furthermore, President Erdogan urged the masses to not just be guests in their receiving countries but to take an active role in politics, to gain influence and wield a ‘constitutional element.’ As a result, and according to Jones’ work, migrant attitudes eventually are taken into the voting booths. However, what kind of ‘attitudes’ could be deemed problematic? For instance, one could certainly argue that despite of not having a consistent agreement throughout the continent regarding women's, minorities or same-sex rights and the extent of our freedom of speech, it indeed becomes a more arduous task if Europe opens its borders to individuals who harbor views and attitudes that really should be non-negotiable in the 21st century.

For this reason, on a debate at Cambridge University, Douglas Murray argued against the motion, “Islam is Compatible with Western Liberalism.” He explored an array of opinion polls on British-Muslims, a community that is highly regarded as being among the most progressive on the entire world. In detail:

  • Regarding Free Speech, Channel 4, in 2006, found that 78% of British Muslims thought the publishers of the Danish cartoons should be prosecuted.

  • BBC poll in 2015 found that 27% had, “some sympathy” for the people who went into the offices of Charlie Hebdo and killed the cartoonists, editors and journalists there.

  • Channel 4 poll from 2016, found that only 1% of UK Muslims think that publications should have the right to publish cartoons of Muhammad.

  • A poll by Channel 4 regarding women’s rights found that nationwide 5% of the British population agreed with the phrase “wives should always obey their husbands.” That number rises to 39% among British Muslims.

  • An ICM poll carried in 2016 found that 52% of British Muslims think homosexuality should be made illegal.

  • A YouGov poll from 2015 found that, nationwide, 16% of the population think that homosexuality is morally wrong. The number raised to 29% in London, where there are more people with a foreign background.

  • A Gallup poll carried out in the UK in 2009 found that 0% of Muslims think homosexuality is acceptable.

In yet another debate, this time for Intelligence Squared and titled Europe on the Edge, Mr Murray insists:

“We had a nice liberal agreement in recent decades over being gay, and now we imported a community that actually thinks, not just that they are not on board with being gay, but thinks it should be made a lockable offense.”