We use cookies for site personalization and analytics. You can opt out of third party cookies. More info in our privacy policy.   Got it

Should nation-states open their borders to refugees and migrants?


Every issue we invite two experts to debate a hot button issue in The Argument, and then invite you to join the conversation online - we’ll read all your comments and select the best to print next issue. (We’d prefer you to use your real name, but would love to hear what our readers have to say either way.) If you can't comment, then you can simply vote in our poll, which you'll find partway down the debate.

Looking for a debate from a previous issue?
Is it ever right to buy or sell human organs? - October 2010
Are public service cuts justified? - November 2010

Bob Hughes

Bob Hughes is a British advocate of ‘open borders’. He teaches at Brookes University in Oxford and is active in the ‘No-One is Illegal’ campaign.

I believe immigration controls are inhuman and should be scrapped. So do many other human rights campaigners. I’ve even met prominent academics, heads of NGOs and MPs who also agree – but only in private and with the rider that the idea is so ‘far out on a limb’ that it might even be ‘dangerously counterproductive’ to discuss it publicly.

I’ve just read an article you co-authored about the panic that seized Canada on the arrival of a ship containing 490 unfortunate Tamil refugees earlier this year (‘Why we can’t turn away the Tamil ships’, Globe and Mail, 17 July 2010). My heart sank when, after putting the panic into calm perspective and exposing the wider irrationality of controls, you went on to reassure your readers that, ‘Canada can also discourage any non-genuine claimants by ensuring timely, fair decisions in their refugee claims, followed by the prompt return of failed claimants.’

‘Fair decisions?’ These laws were never meant to be fair. You know their history – all of them sops to xenophobic agitation. ‘Tough’, not ‘fair’, is how they’re sold and executed. How can a law even pretend to be ‘fair’ that punishes people essentially for being who they are, where they are?

Audrey Macklin

Audrey Macklin teaches law at the University of Toronto. She was active in the campaign to repatriate Canadian child soldier, Omar Khadr, who was captured by US forces in Afghanistan in 2002 and sent to Guantánamo where he has been imprisoned for eight years.

It is not news that the citizenship privileges conferred by the accident of birth are morally arbitrary and unjust in their consequences. I confess to being a pragmatist: A ‘no borders’ argument would have zero traction with policy-makers or most of the public. It leaves one with nothing to say about specific policies. I hope you agree that one can maintain that all border control is invidious while still recognizing that certain policies are more unfair than others. It seems to me that no-borders advocates push on borders from without – they stand outside (or above) the institutions of the state and conventional understandings of sovereignty and make an ethical appeal to individuals.

To concede the legitimacy of states controlling entry, en route to critiquing a particular exercise of that authority, is to push against borders from the inside. One holds a mirror up to the policy and asks how it reflects on the values that ‘insiders’ say they endorse, principles that they may even claim as constitutive of their political community. It is absolutely true that the invocation of the rule of law, or fairness, or equality and dignity, doesn’t get you nearly as far as it should before policy-makers, courts of law, or the court of public opinion. But then again, appeals to open borders arguments don’t either. Pushing from the ‘outside in’ and from the ‘inside out’ are not incompatible. Indeed, I think there is positive value to both operating simultaneously that would be diminished if we allocated all of our energies to a single pressure point.

Bob Hughes

I think you make life hard for yourself if you concede too readily the state’s right to control entry. Borders have become fetishes with lives of their own. The amazing piece of anti-foreigner legislation that you’re currently fighting is called (wait for it, everyone): ‘The Preventing Human Smugglers from Abusing Canada’s Immigration System Act’. Legislation by name-calling, or what? What makes this terrifying, rather than just comical, is the failure of those who can and should condemn it in forthright terms to do so.

It’s worse in the UK where the Government can lock up foreigners for as long as it likes – including children and babies. Regular furores over ever-worse abuse in detention might turn the tide of opinion against ‘strong borders’ policy. But they collapse feebly when the authorities respond: ‘If we’re going to have a credible border policy, we need detention.’ No major campaign group then asks the question the authorities almost dare them to ask: just what is it about these borders that makes their integrity more precious than human dignity and life? Millions can see what malicious nonsense it is, but who in the political class will say so?

Audrey Macklin

I confess to being a pragmatist. A ‘no borders’ argument would have zero traction with policy makers – Audrey

The question is not how to make my life easier or harder. It is whether it would make life easier for the targets of this truly vicious bill if I and every other opponent simply insisted that border control by states is illegitimate and unjust. I doubt it. I am glad that some opponents are doing so, and there may be some who will be persuaded.

But it’s not just political élites who believe in this ‘malicious nonsense’. The overwhelming majority of people in industrialized states have drunk the koolaid: territory is to states what property is to individuals – citizens/owners get to decide who comes in. We might agree that the world would be a better place if people were able to move more freely (and were less impelled to do so). But I expect we might also concur that such a world can only be realized if and when people internalize and will it – not through the application of force. So how can people un-think the habits of mind that make state sovereignty matter and make border control the quintessence of sovereignty?

Bob Hughes

Suspected ‘illegal’ immigrants from Somalia in the dock.

Noor Khamis / Reuters

We do not campaign exclusively for the abolition of controls. Most of the work that ‘No Borders’ groups do is fighting individual anti-deportation campaigns, finding lawyers for people, helping people find evidence and build their cases, supporting protests by detainees and victimized migrants or mounting protests against airlines that carry out deportations. My experience is that ‘No Borders’ groups are some of the most effective campaigners around – and their effectiveness derives in large part precisely from their principled contempt for the whole apparatus of controls.

Perhaps all of us who oppose particular aspects of immigration controls could agree simply to oppose detention, the break-up of families, deportations or whatever. Not to volunteer alternatives that may sound more humane but concede the deadly principle that it is all right, and perhaps necessary, to make some people suffer simply because they are foreign.

We have no right to volunteer the victims of abuse to milder abuse – which will inevitably turn out not to be so mild anyway.

I disagree that the ‘overwhelming majority’ of people believe in the necessity of controls. I make a habit of asking strangers what they think and very often get the response: ‘Of course people should be able to go where they like!’ Even people who seem vehemently against immigrants can quickly agree that the real problem is the lack of decent housing, education and healthcare. I’ve never knowingly had this argument with a card-carrying fascist, but fascists are few in number – so far.

Audrey Macklin

Behind bars: An Iranian child held in detention.

Sigit Pamungkas / Reuters

Since lawyers and legal academics like me are the ones that ‘No Borders’ groups enlist for legal advocacy, I think that ultimately there is less distance between us than you imply. The argument you criticize is precisely the kind of argument that your lawyers make in court.

We have no right to volunteer victims of abuse to milder abuse, but if we confine ourselves to ‘all border regulation is wrong’ in response to this or that aspect of immigration control and we fail to win the day, then we simply cede the terrain of options completely and abandon victims of abuse to more and possibly worse abuse. The stakes are too high for me to accept that gamble.

I would happily be proven wrong about mainstream opposition to border control but I'm not convinced yet.

I concur that many fears about open borders are reducible to apprehended consequences (economic and otherwise). If those fears are allayed, then the fetishization of border control seems to diminish along with it. But doesn’t that remind us that if certain pre-conditions exist (like rough parity across borders along social, economic and political metrics) then borders ease as a result. The dissolution of borders seems more likely to emerge in tandem with or as a consequence of other achievements, rather than in response to isolated and direct challenge.

Photo by: Crossroads Foundation Photos under a CC Licence

Subscribe   Ethical Shop