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Floating populations, civic stratification and solidarity: Comment on Will Kymlicka’s article: “Solidarity in Diverse Societies”

At the end of his inspiring essay about solidarity in diverse societies, Kymlicka (2015) touches on two fundamental points: (1) “Some people believe that the very distinction between permanent and temporary migration is breaking down, and that we will soon be living in a world of “superdiversity” with a multitude of legal statuses that are neither wholly temporary nor wholly permanent, but rather have varying degrees and levels of conditionality and precariousness” and (2) “I am far from sure that such a world is desirable. I am even less sure what would be the source of solidarity in such a world of liquid mobility”. Kymlicka’s phrasing expresses doubt about the correctness of the first diagnosis and disquiet about its consequences for solidarity. However, there are two essential themes at play. Firstly, the changing nature of international migration and secondly, the issue of solidarity.

The complexity and dynamics of diversity

I will start with the evolving diversity of migration. Kymlicka refers to Vertovec’s (2007) notion of super-diversity. Since the 1980s of the previous century, Vertovec argues, there has been a proliferation of migrant flows that are smaller in size, but which originate from a multitude of countries. The migrants settling in Western countries in the 21st century come from all over the world, differ significantly in respect of socio-economic status, in motives for migration and in residence status. In addition, Western countries and cities are being confronted more and more with floating populations that stay temporarily, including highly skilled and low skilled labour migrants, asylum seekers, and irregular migrants (Goldin, Cameron, & Balarajan, 2011). Patterns of liquid migration are also becoming apparent within Europe. These flexible and partly invisible patterns of migration often go hand in hand with non-registration in the population register. Liquid migration is a typical form of European post-accession regular labour migration that is the consequence of open borders within the European Union, flexible labour markets, looser family relationships and cheap means of travel and communication (Engbersen & Snel, 2013). Liquid migration is characterized by non-permanent settlement. Migrants move back and forth from their source country to receiving countries or to multiple destination countries. The transnational migration field in which they strategically operate, generates a specific migratory habitus of ‘intentional unpredictability’ (Eade, Drinkwater, & Garapich, 2006; Engbersen, Leerkes, Grabowska-Lusińska, Snel, & Burgers, 2013).

Temporary and fluid migration challenge dominant national policy paradigms of integration. Assimilationist civic integration policy – as implemented nowadays in many European countries - does not relate well to the presence of transients, that is, migrants that settle in a destination country temporarily. That also applies to multiculturalism: how to manage groups that do not want to, or cannot be fully attached to a destination country? And how to manage the enormous diversity of migration? A country such as the Netherlands now has migrants from 223 countries of origin. Over 200 origin groups and approximately 175 nationalities reside in cities like Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague. Multicultural policy as shaped in the Netherlands in the 1980s and 1990s - state subsidised self-organisation of migrant groups, education in migrants’ native languages, facilitating migrant broadcasting and political consultation facilities for migrant communities - is difficult to organise and to finance in the current age of migration. This multicultural policy was based on group-differentiated rights for a limited number of large migrant groups that settled lastingly in the Netherlands (Entzinger, 2003). The recent repeal of the Minorities Policies (Consultation) Act (Wet Overleg Minderhedenbeleid, WOM) on Tuesday 18 June 2013 by the Dutch Upper House of Parliament was a symbolic measure. This brought to an end the Central Government’s consultation with national minority organisations on integration policy, as provided for by law. The WOM came into effect on 19 June 1997 and was implemented for sixteen years.

Kymlicka asserts that his model of solidarity-promoting multiculturalism relates primarily to permanent residents and future citizens, but the current reality is that a growing proportion of the migrant population can no longer be considered as such. For some migrants, transience is a choice, for others it is born of necessity because they are unable to obtain permanent residence status or because flexible, secondary labour markets in destination countries do not offer stable and well-paid jobs.

Civic stratification and the paradox of solidarity and exclusion

The increasing diversity of migration is partly a product of national entry policy. And that brings me to the aspect of solidarity. I share Kymlicka’s assertion about the significance of nationhood as a progressive force that has built systems of solidarity. The welfare state is the ultimate epitome of that. At the same time, we see that intricate systems of civic stratification or differentiated social membership exist within advanced welfare states (Hammar, 1990; Kofman, 2002; Morris, 2002). This aspect barely features in Kymlicka’s narrative. Welfare policy and immigration policy have become intertwined. That applies to Canada, which adopts a policy of selective entry to attract labour migrants that are of value to the Canadian economy. This entry policy is a manifestation of the paradox of solidarity and exclusion (Teulings, 1995). The inclusive solidarity that Kymlicka advocates is based on the exclusion or differentiated treatment of specific migrant categories. Welfare state provisions are not accessible to everyone, they are for citizens, denizens and for privileged migrant categories. To secure solidarity with a country’s own (vulnerable) citizens, others have to be excluded. Redistribution within the own membership group (internal solidarity) requires the exclusion of people from outside the membership group (no external solidarity).

There are limits to external solidarity. We see that with the refugee issue where advanced welfare states with a high level of internal solidarity (Denmark) attempt to stem the tide of refugees. Countries like Germany and Sweden are also reverting to that stance now. In any case, such a policy does not contradict Kymlicka’s model of a multicultural welfare state. We also see differentiated patterns of membership developing within advanced welfare states. “Wanted migrants” (such as the highly skilled) rapidly become fully-fledged members, while “less wanted migrants” (such as temporary low-skilled labour migrants or family migrants) receive limited membership or are tested in terms of their civic integration capabilities, and “unwanted migrants” (such as irregular labour migrants and failed asylum seekers) are excluded from membership. These types of (non-) membership go hand in hand with differences in economic, social and political rights. They have been developed to reduce the potential risks of immigration to the welfare state. If less wanted or unwanted categories of migrants are able to become fully-fledged members too easily, solidarity systems could become unaffordable and lose support. Nevertheless, there will always be internal pressure to relax membership criteria for specific categories of migrant groups. Economic rationality will sometimes support territorial admission and non-deportation, for example if employers want cheap and willing labour, and humanitarian and solidarity considerations may sustain dynamics of membership inclusion. We see the latter happening primarily at local state level with failed asylum seekers. Not only do some of them receive limited support by the local state (‘bed, water and bread’ arrangement), but they may even granted amnesty and can rise up the social membership ladder.

I am not convinced the model of a multicultural welfare state provides an answer to the two developments outlined: (1) the increased diversity of migration, including many temporary and fluid forms of migration and (2) increased civic stratification within the welfare state. In response to the increased diversity of migration, we are in fact currently witnessing a departure from multicultural policy aimed at group-differentiated rights for minority groups in favour of general policies aimed at all citizens. There is an apparent shift to a more general citizenship policy in which particularly the principles of the democratic constitutional state (freedom of speech, freedom of religion, equal treatment, human rights) and social rights (and associated obligations) are central (Scholten, Collet, & Petrovic, 2016). This shift is partly due to the ineffectiveness of multicultural policies for socio-economic and socio-cultural integration (Koopmans, 2013).

A second characteristic is that coercive civic integration courses are becoming more significant in response to the growing diversity of migration. These courses are part of a trend towards the culturalisation or moralisation of citizenship in which potential citizens are tested on the fundamental values of the destination country (Schinkel, 2010). As Hampshire states (2013, p. 155), civic integration policies have become “the liberal state’s chief weapons” in a struggle to maintain national identity. But what does such a test prove? Loyalty to the fundamental values of the Netherlands is difficult to enforce in advance, even if applicants have provided the right answers to test questions about sexual morality in the Netherlands, gay marriage and the equality of men and women. In addition, many migrant groups (the highly skilled and migrants from EU countries) are not obliged to take the integration exam. Nevertheless, it would be incorrect to view these courses only from a perspective of assimilation or cultural integration. Dutch research shows that such courses could especially be meaningful for socio-economic integration of migrants. Language learning is an essential part of this. Also, on a local level, especially cities with a highly diverse population, are contemplating new policy that includes “thin” forms of local identity formation (Scholten, Collet, & Petrovic, 2016). Policies of local identity formation are an answer to the increase of migrant diversity, including the presence of floating populations. This is an attempt to strengthen social cohesion by strengthening local identities.

The new trend is not going towards a multicultural welfare state but towards a segmented welfare state model in which differentiated citizenship and membership, economic participation and thin forms of identity formation are key. This development is based on principles of exclusive as well as inclusive solidarity. Within this model that is taking shape, it will be a challenge to pay attention to specific migrant groups that are in vulnerable positions and to enable their transition from non- or partial membership to full social membership.


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Correspondence to Godfried Engbersen.

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Engbersen, G. Floating populations, civic stratification and solidarity: Comment on Will Kymlicka’s article: “Solidarity in Diverse Societies”. CMS 4, 8 (2016).

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