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Thinking about open borders

The free movement of people across international borders is a taboo in international political debates, making a thorough and much-needed rethinking of migration politics impossible. This must change.

The free movement of people across state borders is a taboo in international political debates. Borders, it is often argued, would play a decreasing role in a globalising world. And indeed, there is strong support for the free circulation of goods, capitals, services or information. But when it comes to people, this no longer applies. The idea that human beings could be free to move from one state to another, choosing where they want to live, is usually dismissed as unrealistic. The unchallenged assumption is that peoples’ access to countries other than their own should be carefully monitored and controlled.

Opening state borders to human migration would certainly be no easy scenario. It would constitute a complete upheaval in the world’s organisation and raise more than a few fundamental questions. But does this prevent us from at least thinking about this scenario? Many of today’s realities used to be deemed ‘unrealistic’, from the abolition of slavery to gender equality. Yet, even those who are deeply dissatisfied with today’s world rarely consider this particular scenario. The United Nations repeatedly calls for many goals that are hardly ‘realistic’—world peace, ending poverty, and so on—but never mentions open borders. The same could be said of NGOs. Most of them, even those that are actively engaged in the promotion of migrants’ rights, take migration control for granted. In other words, many objectives exist that are extraordinarily difficult to achieve yet are never rejected as illegitimate. The free movement of people is not one of them.

When it comes to human mobility, the objective is almost always to move towards greater _im_mobility. Except for the wealthiest parts of the global population, people may only move for specific and well-defined reasons (asylum, family reunification, labor market shortages in receiving countries, etc.), and only under the close supervision of governments or employers. Development efforts, for example, regularly aim at enabling (or forcing?) the inhabitants of less-developed regions to stay there. Even when people move, the implicit goal for both sending and receiving states is that they eventually return. Thus, so-called ‘counter-trafficking’ measures strive to return the ‘victims’ of trafficking to their country, as if their vulnerability was only caused by their displacement. The same ‘there-is-no-place-like-home’ spirit characterises the treatment of refugees, pushed to go back to their region as soon as it has regained a minimum of security and stability. Economic migrants, too, are regularly expected to be ‘guestworkers’, remaining in and contributing to the ‘host’ country only as long as their presence is desired.

Perhaps because of this sedentary obsession, migration is perceived as a challenge in many parts of the world. Regardless of the evidence, migrants are understood as ‘problems’, and as a cause of insecurity, unemployment, welfare abuse, social disintegration, and so on. But nobody seems to know what the solution should look like. The only strategy seems to be to reinforce and strengthen, again and again, the different measures blocking mobility: technology (biometrics, ‘smart borders’); state cooperation (Frontex, readmission agreements, ‘migration and development partnerships’); and standard patterns of border control (fences, expulsions). Given the longstanding failure of these efforts to prevent all informal entry, the only question that remains is whether these are genuine but naïve attempts to stop people, or more cynical tools to increase migrants’ vulnerability and therefore their exploitability.

It is high time, therefore, to stop thinking about how to keep people in their place, and to recognise the normality and legitimacy of human mobility. The point is not to deny that migration raises certain problems. Rather, it is to suggest that these problems will not disappear simply if people stay at home. Moreover, the more states aim at stopping people, the more problematic and disturbing the ethical and political foundations of border control appear. In a world marked by sharp, increasing socioeconomic imbalances, how much longer will we be able to justify the position that living conditions should be a correlate of our countries of birth?

Citizens of the global North can move quite easily across the world, whereas their fellow human beings in the global South are much more restricted. Is this fair? In the same vein, why should skilled people, like engineers, doctors or businesspeople, have easier access to opportunities abroad than their ‘unskilled’ compatriots? Employers and companies benefit from the liberalisation of trade in a globalising economy; but workers do not enjoy the same mobility: is this merely a way to favor capital to the detriment of labor and, if so, should this be left uncontested? If all human beings were fortunate enough to live in reasonably wealthy countries, with acceptable living and working conditions, these questions would perhaps be irrelevant. But this is not the case, and the ugly realities of our world are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.

Migrants themselves do not ignore these questions. Migration, and especially irregular migration, is often rooted in a kind of global justice framework: people go where they think they can make a better living and, usually, share the benefits with those left behind (e.g. through remittances). Border control may make migration more difficult, but it does not convince many migrants that moving without authorisation is really unacceptable—that they shouldn’t try just because they were told no. Indeed, migrants’ independent agency is arguably the single biggest obstacle to all the measures aimed at preventing irregular migration.

Of course, these arguments do not exhaust the issue. In particular, they clash with another set of equally valid arguments, which pertain to the centrality of closeness for solidarity and justice. Welfare, for example, is often thought to imply a degree of national closure to be meaningful. The same applies to democracy and, in a broader fashion, to the sense of identity and cultural sameness that, according to some, makes collective life possible and desirable. From this perspective, open borders is a misleadingly attractive objective. By destroying the foundations of nation-states, free movement would actually reinforce the already strong tendency towards neoliberal individualism.

This is a well-known and much-discussed dilemma, to which there is no easy solution. It is fair to observe, however, that current efforts to stop migration do not appear to automatically translate into greater in-state solidarity. Rather, the discourse against immigration tends to be fundamentally biased and damaging to domestic solidarity, as it rages against irregular migration while discreetly tolerating the presence of irregular migrants and taking advantage of their disadvantaged status. This does nothing but reinforce internal divides and tensions inside societies, the worst possible scenario for anyone who does not benefit from migrants’ under-protection.

Equally problematic, the entire basis for the discussion on immigration control rests on the fictitious idea that people ‘naturally’ stay at home. This is not only questionable from a historical and empirical standpoint, but more importantly it justifies and perpetuates a status quo that benefits neither migrants nor receiving societies. The first step for rethinking the politics of migration is therefore to challenge their most fundamental assumptions. In order to do this we must—at least—open the debate on the free movement of people.


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