The new common sense
Immigration controls are a cruel 20th-century aberration. Although they may seem like common sense, an unavoidable reality, in fact, in most countries they are less than 100 years old.
International migration, on the other hand, has always existed. Twice as many people migrated from Europe to the rest of the world as have come in the opposite direction. And since the current theory is that human beings originated in East Africa, every other part of the world is the product of immigration. All of us, the racists and the rest of us, are either immigrants or descended from immigrants.
Freedom of movement should be the new common sense. It is hard to see why people should not be allowed to move around the world in search of work or safety or both.
Within the European Union there are growing attempts to secure the principle of freedom for its citizens to live and work in any member country. Between the states of the US federation there are no restrictions on the movement of people. It would be considered an outrage if the inhabitants of a country were not free to travel to another part of that country to get a job there, or if they were not allowed to leave it. Indeed, it was considered an outrage when this happened in the former USSR.
The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts these rights. Yet the Universal Declaration is strangely silent on the question of the right to enter another country. Governments cling to what seems to be one of their last remaining prerogatives: their right to keep people out of their territories. Few people question the morality, legality or practicality of this right.
Nation-states in decline
Nation-states are the agents and enforcers of immigration controls and country boundaries. Most were themselves not fully established until the 19th century.
Now nation-states are supposed to be on the decline. International institutions such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization attempt to control the actions of national governments. Economic power is concentrated in fewer and bigger corporations. These put pressure on governments to allow goods and capital to move freely around the world, unaffected by considerations of national sovereignty. Sometimes they also press governments to allow the free movement of people, in order to secure the labour they need for expansion. Yet by the 1970s many countries, especially in Europe but not in North America, had more or less ended the right of people to enter and work.
In theory, the right to gain asylum under the United Nations 1951 Geneva convention, within certain restrictive conditions, remains. But during the past 15 years or so, governments have increasingly failed to observe the spirit of this undertaking.
Governments claim – unjustly – that most asylum seekers are in fact ‘economic migrants’, migrating to better their economic situation. Incorrectly labelling them as ‘illegal immigrants’, they build a vast edifice of repression.
Immigration boosts wealth
Even if it were morally acceptable for the rich nations of the world to use immigration controls to preserve their disproportionate wealth, as the South African whites tried to use apartheid to preserve theirs, it is doubtful whether they achieve this purpose.
There is a mass of evidence to show that immigrants actually make a big contribution to the wealth and prosperity of the countries they go to. When asked after the IMF/World Bank meetings in Washington why he had raised upwards the estimates of his country’s economic growth, British minister Gordon Brown said this was because net immigration was higher than expected. Economists have also suggested that the abolition of immigration controls would cause a doubling of world incomes.1
Immigration is not just good for the capitalists. It also improves both the job prospects and the wages and conditions of workers. Without immigration, sectors of industry would collapse or move abroad, with knock-on effects on other jobs. The US economy, especially its agriculture, building trades and services, is heavily dependent on immigrants, including those who have no legal permission to work.
Many industrialized countries – especially in Europe – have declining and ageing populations. Unless immigration is increased, there will not be enough young workers to pay taxes, keep the public sector and industry functioning and look after the old people.
On average immigrants contribute more in taxes than they receive in public services, studies in the US have shown. In Britain too the Home Office estimates that immigrants make a net contribution of $3.75. billion a year to public finances. The cost of immigration controls, on the other hand, is at least $1.5 billion a year, and rising.
Immigration controls are explicable only by racism. Those who defend them often refer to the need to ‘preserve national identity’. National identity is hard to define. More or less every country in the world is the product of successive waves of immigration. Each new group of arrivals has tended to be vilified as unable to assimilate, prone to disease, crime and so on.
It is sometimes argued that the numbers migrating from poor countries to the rich countries of Europe, North America and Australasia would be larger and might ‘swamp’ local populations and cause severe social disruption.
Yet the few migrants and refugees who make it to the rich countries are exceptional people who have to have some money and a great deal of courage and enterprise. They come because there are jobs, or because they are in desperate danger. Few people want to uproot themselves and leave their families, friends and cultures and most of those who do so wish to return; immigration controls have the perverse effect of making this harder.
Contrary to predictions, the introduction of free internal movement within Europe did not lead to mass migration from the poor South to the richer North; on the contrary the authorities would like to have more rather than less labour mobility in the European Union. They also predict that the planned opening to the East will have a similarly limited effect on migration.
The existence of extreme world poverty and inequality does not cause mass migration, but rather the opposite. Most people in the Third World do not have a remote possibility of migrating. Economic development, where it occurs and especially of the skewed type which results from Western intervention, is more likely to cause an increase in migration than extreme poverty.
If the governments of the rich West really do wish to reduce the number of refugees in the world, including the tiny proportion who try to make it into their territories, there are things they should stop doing. For example they should not create refugees by selling arms in conflict zones or to repressive regimes.
Model for opening
As in apartheid, the apparatus of repression required to enforce immigration controls is becoming increasingly unsustainable.
The costs, the suffering, and the racism they engender are escalating. Sooner or later, immigration controls will be abandoned. The main issue is how much longer is the suffering to continue before they can be consigned to the dustbin of history?
Clearly it would not make much sense to campaign for immigration controls to be ended only in one country. Their abolition would need to be by agreement between the rich governments of the world.
A precedent for the opening of borders exists in the European Union. Those who worked for the abolition of European internal frontiers were animated not only by the interests of big business and free trade, but by an idealistic view of the future of Europe.
North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA) agreements provide only for the free movement of goods and capital. But president Fox of Mexico, who is a strong supporter of neo-liberal policies and also a friend of George Bush, is pressing for the free movement of labour to be included in the agreements, as the Wall Street Journal and sections of US capital have done for some time.
Abolition of borders implies complete freedom of movement for all, and the right to settle and work in a place of the person’s choice, just as people can now do within countries. This in turn implies the abandonment not just of immigration controls, but of the whole apparatus of determining whether or not a person is entitled to refugee status.
Little would be gained by expanding quotas or agreements on ‘burden sharing’ and dispersal of those who some agency decided were ‘genuine’ refugees. Refugees themselves are best able to decide whether or not they need to flee; the presumption that this can be determined by immigration officials operating quotas is absurd. Those whose claims were refused would have to be kept out, which would mean the continuation of repression.
Some argue that the way ahead is to increase the number of work permits issued to employers to employ immigrants and that this would get rid of ‘people smuggling’. However, either the number of permits issued would meet demand in which case controls would be unnecessary, or those who failed to migrate legally would continue to try to do so illegally.
In a more just world order, movements of capital would be democratically controlled to meet people’s needs and to reduce inequalities. But people are not goods or capital – and they should be free to move. The attempt to limit this basic freedom leads to some of the worst abuses of human rights which exist in the world today. The abolition of immigration controls would mean a vast increase in freedom and prosperity for all of us.
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.