An open debate on open borders: reply to Stephen Castles

Liza Schuster
29 December 2003

Liza Schuster

When we organised the conference on ‘Humans without rights: asylum seekers in the 21st century’ conference at the London School of Economics in November 2003, there was a discussion about whether we should have a session on the theme of “open borders”. Wouldn’t such a discussion be utopian, and policy-irrelevant? We did include the session – and over 450 people turned up. Isn’t there an important point to be made here, apart from the costs of the attempt to control borders, and the severe costs in terms of human rights?

Stephen Castles and Zrinka Bralo, spoke at the Humans Without Rights conference on 21st century asylum-seeking at the London School of Economics in November 2003. openDemocracy.net publishes edited versions of their contributions.

I would argue that it is conceptually important to dare to build castles in the air, by bringing open borders into the debate. This allows us to address the concerns of those people who are worried about the depressive effect on wage levels, or the impact on the welfare state; but it also enables us to confront the fact that controlled borders, let alone closed borders, are a fiction, and that the European and other governments which attempt to enforce these are involved in a symbolic battle at best.

The fact is that most people migrate legally, entering the new country as students, tourists or business people. Others arrive and claim asylum – a perfectly legitimate act. It is only after they have crossed border controls that some of these people become irregular, undocumented, or ‘illegal’ – by overstaying their visas or by breaching the terms of their permits, for example by working. However, this symbolic battle in which states engage has very real and serious costs and consequences, borne not just by migrants, but also by the receiving societies. Yet the emphasis is overwhelmingly on the costs of migration rather than the costs of controls.

Restrictions at the borders are growing ever tighter, and as the restrictions increase so does the price that people are forced to pay in order to enter Europe: both financially, and in terms of injury and death. Every week there are reports of dozens of people dying in the Mediterranean, in trucks, falling out of aircraft. The number of deaths amount to many hundreds each year. Others bind themselves into virtual slavery to pay off debts to smugglers or traffickers – money that they could use to improve their lives in Europe or those of their families at home.

But what of the costs of border controls to the receiving societies? We have a situation now in Europe where it is acceptable to stigmatise and abuse asylum-seekers and people who appear to be ‘foreign’. The tone of this debate, as argued in my openDemocracy.net article “State Racism and its Techniques” is set by governments and then amplified and disseminated by the media. The result is an increase in racial prejudice and racial violence each time migration controls become the focus of political attention. This is one of the most important reasons for engaging in the debate around open borders.

Stephen Castles speaks about the pre-first world war period when people could go to the United States, not to claim asylum but as migrants, despite the fact that they were fleeing persecution and repression in their countries of origin. He says that that policy would not work today, but does not explain why.

Stephen also spoke about the financial costs of migration. A recent report by the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) noted that five OECD countries (Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, the Britain and the United States) spent $17 billion on border controls in 2002, of which 60-75% was actually spent on asylum processes, about two-thirds as much as they spent in official development assistance. Money spent on controlling borders would surely be far better spent on development in those countries, so that people had a real choice about whether and where they wanted to go, or on strengthening the social infrastructure in receiving countries so that debilitating competition between disadvantaged groups could be avoided.

The remittances that migrants send when they travel are of vital importance. In 1999 migrants from Mexico, the Philippines and India sent back more than $25 billion in remittances – far more than the $17 billion spent on border controls three years earlier. Stephen Castles is correct to raise the issue of the ‘brain drain’, of the poorer countries of the world subsidising the richest countries by training their labour; but if people could travel freely and not have to pay $5000-plus dollars per head in order to get to Europe, then migrants could start earning without such a massive debt to traffickers and smugglers on their backs . More money would stay in the villages and communities from which they come, and they could even send the money back to educate their siblings and others in their community. In short, there are very good practical arguments in favour of borders being open.

On a more strategic note, while we do need to be careful not to engage in sectarian arguments, fear of sectarianism shouldn’t prevent us from engaging in an open borders debate. We can support anti-deportation and anti-detention campaigns and all sorts of battles at many different levels – in trade unions, churches, parent-teacher associations – all of which will contribute to dismantling these border controls in the longer term. But we also need to have a debate out there.

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