A fair migration policy - without open borders

About the author
Stephen Castles is professor of migration and refugee studies, and director of the International Migration Institute, at the University of Oxford. Until January 2001 he was director of the Centre for Asia Pacific Social Transformation Studies at the Universities of Wollongong and Newcastle, Australia.
Stephen Castles
Stephen Castles

An appalling regime has been installed in Britain and other European countries to restrict the right to asylum, a regime that makes it impossible for many people to claim the rights they have under international human rights law. In Britain, five asylum bills in ten years have been designed to make that regime even more restrictive. This is extremely disturbing.

How do we defend the right to asylum? For example, is the political demand for open borders a useful part of the campaign? I am not talking here about the defence of open borders based on ethical principles: with that, many more of us might agree. But politically, does the call for open borders defend or undermine the right to asylum?

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.

In an obvious, logical way, it must further the cause, because if there are open borders there is no such thing as asylum any more. That situation existed in the past, and could theoretically return. Many of the millions of people who went to the United States before the first world war were fleeing persecution, but asylum wasn’t an issue because people could enter as immigrants. In the 1960s in Europe, hundreds of thousands fled from repression in Spain, Portugal and Turkey – but they did not claim asylum because France, Germany and other countries were open to migrants. They came in as workers. Could a simple redefinition of this kind solve the problem today? I would argue that that would not work in current circumstances.

Present policies in Britain (and elsewhere in the west) are mendacious. They aim to recruit and allow reasonably free entry to highly-skilled migrants, while denying entry to low-skilled migrants, based on the fiction that western economies don’t need low-skilled workers.

Could we solve that problem through open borders? To answer this, we must differentiate between highly-skilled and less-skilled migrants. Effectively, there are already open borders for highly-skilled workers. Every western country is doing its best to seek out highly-skilled workers. Clearly the migrants concerned, together with their families, tend to benefit from this; it is not clear if the countries of origin or other groups from those countries benefit. I have always regarded international migration as a transfer of value from poor to rich countries: taking human capital, and the educational resources of the less-developed world, and using them in the already rich countries.

At present, we talk a lot about moving from brain drain to brain circulation, but it is not clear if that is really happening. I would argue for less not more control of skilled migration, as part of an overall multilateral development strategy. Skilled personnel should come to developed countries to gain further training and experience as well as to further their own interests. There should be conditions encouraging them to use their remittances, and facilitate skills transfer in the countries concerned, conducive to their development. We should nurture, not just exploit, the human resources of the less-developed world.

What about the lower skilled? At present, we have so called “zero immigration” policies for less-skilled workers in virtually all western countries. These policies are fraudulent and hypocritical. In fact developed countries have a strong need for low-skilled workers, for economic, social and not least demographic reasons. Such labour migration should be allowed – but not necessarily in an unplanned, chaotic, free-market manner.

Three groups for open borders

It is interesting to note that the three groups in favour of open borders are neo-classical economists, employers, and sections of the left. The most vocal group in favour are neo-classical economists like George Borjas and Barry R. Chiswick. They say clearly why they support free migration: because it leads to “flexible labour markets” (economist-speak for lower wages). They believe that free migration would lead to a decline in the wages for low-skilled work in developed countries and would in the long run lead to an increase in such wages in less-developed countries.

The second group, employers, naturally favour open borders for the same reason. This is where the analogy with globalisation processes occurs: the idea that flows of capital and of trade should be accompanied by free flows of labour. The argument draws on the experience of the last thirty years in the west, during which neo-classical ideology has done so much to change the economies and societies of western countries. It also goes along with deregulation of employment and working conditions, the privatisation of government services, and an attack on the trade unions.

The countries which have followed this path, like Britain and the United States, have relatively low unemployment but also growing income inequality and a burgeoning low-wage casual work sector. The neo-classical economists and their political friends advocate exactly these strategies for the countries which have so far resisted them like Germany, France and Scandinavia.

The third group to favour open borders are people on the left who obviously have quite different motivations. They criticise the appalling human rights violations inherent in the current hypocritical immigration system. They don’t trust the state; but do they trust the market? I am really curious about this: left-wing advocates of the open borders principle seem to believe in the self-regulating nature of labour markets. They seem to have no fear of downward pressure on wages, or negative consequences for the welfare state.

If that is their argument, they are a very long way from convincing the public of it. It is quite clear that the overwhelming majority of people, in Britain at least, do not believe that free migration is in their interest. Should we therefore argue that they are dupes of a racism in which they have been misled by the often xenophobic tabloid press and by the government? Even if true, is the political stance that follows from this argument going to achieve anything?

Three principles of fairness

I think that it is here that the analogy with those issues of free trade and free capital movements holds. If freedom of capital movements is a huge disadvantage to less-developed countries, why should we think that freedom of movement is going to solve the question of labour? Thus, rather than advocating open borders, let me propose three principles of what would be a fairer and more rational policy.

The first principle is full recognition of the right to asylum and a full, fair and open determination process, which certainly does not exist at present. The second principle is to link the migration of skilled workers and students to the transfer of capital and skills back to their countries of origin. This could entail something like the ‘Tobin tax’, a tax imposed by countries of origin on the countries who profit from the labour of these highly-skilled workers.

The third principle is to assess labour market needs for low-skilled migrants, and introduce a quota system to facilitate legal entry, based on a non-discriminatory mechanism. Whatever we do, there will probably still be undocumented migration. We need full recognition of the human rights of undocumented workers; to look at amnesty and legalisation measures where possible; at retraining and reintegration support for people who are not granted leave to remain; and on a broader level, to reverse the deregulation and privatisation measures which lead to the casualisation of labour and the deterioration of worker rights.

In conclusion, I would say that despite our restrictive immigration policies, countries like Britain actually do more to cause forced migration and undocumented migration than to stop it. This is because unfair trade policies, exploitative intellectual property policies, and the unfair international trade regime lead to the deterioration both of human rights and economic conditions in countries of origin. That is what we need to address.

Humans Without Rights: Exhibition

Humans Without Rights: Exhibition