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Migration: What is multiculturalism?

Updated: Nov 30, 2023

Migration is one of the most talked-about phenomena of our time, especially in Europe. The top leaders of the region seem to have a very diverse set of opinions on how to handle this situation. However, despite their differences, one shared drawback in all European policies on migration is the absence of a concrete structure of integration. This, unfortunately, perpetuates discrimination in the long run. Nowadays, the majority of the immigrants coming to Europe face huge obstacles upon entrance, which thrusts the definition of illegality onto their arrival on the continent: this is what we mean when we speak of the criminalisation of immigrants. This model of migration impedes any possibility of building a healthy dialogue between people of different cultures: is it possible to form a truly multicultural society?

The term “multiculturalism” was coined in the West and it refers to a society that has experienced a process of transformation thanks to the presence of different cultures. In the European context, multiculturalism has been long debated among different political forces, each of which took various approaches: those against multiculturalism, and those in favour of it. For the latter, there exists another distinction regarding the way in which dialogue with the immigrant population is made. In particular, they believe that it is possible to identify the presence of a conflict between liberals and communitarians.

As the philosopher Charles Taylor would put it, liberals try to emphasize the concept of honour, whereas communitarians are concerned with the concept of dignity. In both cases, the process of the recognition of the “other” is crucial, as well as the principle of mutual respect, but they translate these concerns into extremely different policies. Liberals support the idea of universal rights: we are all human beings and, as such, we all deserve the same rights. The French model of integration of the 1970s adopted this exact approach. At the time, immigrants had the possibility of obtaining their citizenships quite easily, and this facilitated them in asserting their fundamental rights. However, the biggest problem with this model is that it does not recognize the presence of any differences, and therefore, it is incapable of catering to the needs of other cultures. This causes the eventual rise of discrimination. For instance, France is known for its strong laicism, which is emphasised especially in public spaces; the reason behind this behaviour is the promotion of universalism. However, this can lead to inequalities. We can see this, for example, in the case of the right of Islamic women to wear hijabs, which has often been put into jeopardy.

To claim that we are all equal can sometimes be dangerous because it generally ends in the imposition of the majority upon the minority, and most importantly, it fails to recognize what Martha Nussbaum would call “liberty of conscience”. Communitarians, on the other hand, try to build differentiated policies: there are differences which need to be recognized and respected, and therefore it is necessary to construct a system of policies that changes in accordance with these differences. The underlying idea is that cultural identity is fluid and constantly changing, and as a consequence, the introduction of new cultures is the perfect occasion to rethink the idea of nationality in terms of post-nationalism. A good example of this theory at work is what happened in Belgium in 1974, when Islam was recognized as a national religion. This model of integration, however, is not exempt from discrimination.The United Kingdom has (for a long time) tried to promote differentiated policies, such as the Sikh’s right of not wearing a safety helmet on motorcycles. However, the absence of genuine dialogue between cultures has created a nation of mutually closed societies, where minorities live in worse condition than the majority. During the pandemic, for instance, the majority of deaths and infections in the UK occurred in cultural minorities.

It seems like constructing a real process of integration is extremely difficult - and, indeed, it is. Culture is not neutral; it is rooted deep in society, and this makes multiculturalism all the more complicated. Integration is all about conflicts and negotiations. In the end, the key to building good immigration policies is recognizing the “other” as an active individual that is ready to experience a process of mutual transformation through dialogue and respect.


Author: Sabrina Pipitone


  • Nussbaum Martha (2009). Libertà di Coscienza e Religione, ed. Il Mulino, Italia.

  • Basso Pietro e Perocco Fabio (2003). Gli immigrati in Europa, ed. FrancoAngeli, Italia.

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