+ -
People on the Move – Dossier on Migration (02/2016)

Migration holds the key to the future

Text: Walter Leimgruber

The idea of society as a stable structure providing those born into it with a clear framework of shared belonging while demarcating them from «others» is a concept which only arose with the modern nation state – and it is already obsolete.

Prof. Walter Leimgruber. (Illustration: Studio Nippoldt)
Prof. Walter Leimgruber. (Illustration: Studio Nippoldt)

Only a small percentage of the world’s population can be statistically defined as «migrants» – people who leave one country to live in another. However, in wealthy societies such as our own the proportion is significantly higher. Around a quarter of Switzerland’s inhabitants do not hold a Swiss passport; over a third come from migrant families, and around half have at least one foreign-born grandparent. Almost half of all marriages are binational. Accordingly, the idea of the nation as a homogeneous group enjoying citizenship rights based on a common origin is becoming less and less pertinent.

Meanwhile, migration has long ceased to be an exceptional phenomenon, having become a commonplace part of everyday life. However, acceptance of this development – and the fact that Switzerland, along with the rest of Europe, has become an immigration destination – remains lacking among large parts of the country’s society and political class. As a result, there is no coherent migration policy in place to set the course for future developments. Instead, we simply muddle along from one initiative to the next, entangling ourselves in a hopeless web of contradictions while hoping that the problem will eventually go away. Of course, this is not going to happen. On the contrary: migration policy holds the key to the future.


The promise of the nation state is the unification of society, politics and territory: bringing the social, political and geographical spheres into alignment. However, recent decades have seen a rapid proliferation of processes that straddle national borders, resulting in a growing disconnect between the social sphere and its geographical setting. As physical spaces are brought closer together by technology and communication, social spaces are becoming more complex, overlapping so that even the smallest space is home to the most diverse ways of living.

At the same time, social spaces are expanding, with the result that they no longer correspond to continuous geographical units. Distant communities can give rise to a shared social space. However, if social interaction is possible regardless of geography, then a shared place of residence ceases to be a necessary condition for shared political rights. Rather, we need to think about how citizenship models above and beyond the idea of the state as a merely spatial entity might function.

When large numbers of citizens no longer live within a state’s territorial boundaries, but all over the world, the result is a global network which can be leveraged for economic, cultural or political collaboration. From this perspective, the state is no longer an association of people who inhabit a particular territory, but increasingly one of people scattered over the entire world. Accordingly, rather than being characterized in spatial terms, the concept of citizenship must be redefined as membership of a network. This raises the question of whether the channels of democratic participation must also be rethought: In the future, will people exercise their political rights where they live, or in the country they are nationals of? Or must we develop new criteria for co-determination altogether?


The Swiss educational system is praised as exemplary. Nevertheless, fundamental changes are needed across all life phases, from early childhood and school age to professional and adult life. We need systematic early support for the acquisition of cognitive abilities, learning motivation and perseverance, as these are the areas in which children are most likely to fall behind with little chance of subsequent recovery. We need a school system which avoids making premature selections and supports the gifted rather than penalizing the less gifted.

Finally, we need an educational system which, instead of focusing on school-leaving examination and apprenticeship statistics or the proportion of math and language lessons, tackles the problem of imparting up-to-date knowledge in a constantly changing world. This calls for new educational models with a lifelong approach and closer interplay between theoretical and practical knowledge. What is more, it requires a clear focus on creative and innovative thinking.

Even in a highly developed country such as Switzerland, there are over 600,000 adults – including many migrants – with no education beyond compulsory schooling. This highlights how the industrial age has provided (and continues to do so, for now) employment for large numbers of people with no vocational qualifications. However, these people could soon find themselves in need of better qualifications as many of their tasks are outsourced or automated. A broader skillset would give them much better prospects elsewhere.


For some, it goes without saying that migrants have an obligation to accept local values, to assimilate. Others see enforced integration as an obsolete and one-sided imposition. Moreover, the number of people living multi-locally as highly mobile global nomads is on the rise. But what does integration policy mean for those who do not live in a single location which they can call home?

Yet a society without an underlying orientation – not in the sense of a mainstream culture, but of a constitutionally-defined framework – cannot operate. Integration must also mean participation since consensus can only be achieved in collaboration. There will, however, never be a state of equilibrium in which everyone considers the prevailing values to be the right ones. Rather, discussion and debate form a crucial part of this consensus and must be protected as key tenets of our society.

To a large extent, life as we know it in Western societies is only possible thanks to the accomplishments of the Enlightenment. These accomplishments, attained at great cost in the face of extreme adversity and numerous setbacks, must be protected against those who value the will of the people over observance of basic rights and conventions, as well as against those who claim special rights or special treatment on the grounds of their traditions and religion.

Welfare state and demography

In a seminal 1950 essay, Thomas H. Marshall wrote that since the emergence of the welfare state, civil, political and social rights have formed the three constituent parts of national citizenship. Today, however, the allocation of these rights is more complex. Political rights are granted only to citizens, while civil rights – which are increasingly synonymous with universally protected human rights – are granted to everyone: freedom of expression, of assembly and of opinion are not dependent on a particular legal status. Social rights, meanwhile, are accorded to a group of people who possess a particular residency status. All of these rights were originally created with citizens in mind, but now apply to many other people besides.

This state of affairs has given rise to an intermediate status between that of (national) citizen and citizen of the world: the status of «denizen», or resident. These terms imply automatic access to social rights after a certain period of residency has elapsed. Meanwhile, the key decisions are made by citizens. Politically, this cannot work in the long term. Social policy in particular is already faced with enormous challenges arising from demographic change.

What is more, concerns at the welfare state level have brought about fundamental changes in political affiliation. Surging migration has caused large parts of the working classes, fearful of losing their own position in society, to abandon the leftwing parties which fought to strengthen the welfare state in favor of anti-migration right-wing populists.

Migration – the most visible aspect of globalization – has caused economic and social conditions to evolve at an as yet unprecedented rate. People in Europe perceive this as a threat, both at an individual and collective level. However, the notion that it is possible to turn back the clock, much vaunted by anti-immigration parties and organizations, is doomed to failure. What we need are strategies whereby a hitherto wealthy and successful nation such as Switzerland and a hitherto powerful and influential continent such as Europe can implement their values and realize their potential in a globalized world. The key to such solutions lies in migration policy.

More articles in the current issue of UNI NOVA.

To top