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What if ... people could migrate freely?

Migration
Refugees
Credit: Piviso.com

Architect and illustrator Theo Deutinger has made a simple but telling set of graphics showing the number of countries you can travel to without a visa, depending on your nationality.

If you are a citizen of the UK or the US, you are free to enter 157 countries. Your world is pretty big.

If you’re a citizen of Afghanistan, however, just 22 countries will let you in without a visa. Your world isn’t much bigger if you are Pakistani (25), Iraqi (26) or Syrian (30).

You will have noticed an emerging pattern. If you need to travel to escape war, conflict, poverty, then national borders are automatically closed to you. If by accident of birth you are a citizen of a rich and relatively safe country, they are automatically open. And if you are a very rich person from a ‘poorer’ country you can buy, for example, a Maltese passport which will open more borders to you.

We are often told that ‘open borders’ is a pipedream, pie in the sky. In truth it’s a very real and earthly pie for the rich.

But what if everyone could move freely across borders – including those for whom travel is not a trivial but a vital need?

Save lives

Around 68.5 million people were forced to flee their homes in 2017, most from a handful of war-torn countries where the West has become militarily involved. Instead of offering safe passage, Europe, the US and Australia have intensified border enforcement, forcing people into the hands of people traffickers and more perilous journeys. In 2016 the number of people dying while cros­sing borders reached unprecedented levels. Over 5,000 people died in the Mediterranean alone. In 2017 the deaths were fewer, 3,116, as the number attempting the cros­sing into Europe halved to 171,635.

Save money

Immigration controls are not only inhumane, they are also costly. In Britain, which operates a ‘hostile environment’ policy towards migrants, over 30,000 are locked up in immigration detention centres each year. Between 2013 and 2017 Britain spent $660 million on locking up migrants. Australia pays to send people seeking asylum to outsourced detention camps in Papua New Guinea. The US operates the largest immigration detention system, expanding under Donald Trump.

The US government calculates that on any one day this year an average 51,379 people will be held in its immigration detention centres. The notoriously cruel practice of taking thousands of migrant children away from their parents bumps up the cost. An adult detention bed costs the US taxpayer $133-$200 a night; a bed for a separated child costs $775 per night.

A boost to economies

The dominant narrative in this era of dog-whistle xenophobia is that migrants take jobs from local people, push down wages, are a drain on welfare and public services, and lead to rising crime and terrorism.

But studies repeatedly show that host countries gain more than they lose from immigration. Migrants are usually younger and healthier than their domestic counterparts and contribute much more in tax revenue than they claim in benefits. Rather than just taking jobs, they also create them by starting businesses. The criminality claims don’t stand up either. In the US, newcomers are a fifth as likely to be imprisoned as the native born. A study of migration flows between 145 countries by Britain’s Warwick University found that immigration helped reduce terrorism by promoting economic development. Meanwhile, money sent home by migrants to developing countries is worth seven times more than global aid contributions, says the World Bank.

As for migrants depressing local wages, research conducted by the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford found that in Britain immigration had a very small impact on average wages. Of course, if all migrants were legal they would be in a stronger position to demand a decent wage.

Won't too many migrate?

But what about the sheer numbers of people who would come through? Would this not cause chaos and produce an unbearable drain on welfare and public services in receiving countries?

Border controls are a relatively recent invention. For most of human existence, freedom of movement has been the norm. Amazingly, given today’s migration discourse, only 3.4 per cent of the world’s population currently live outside the country of their birth. Three-quarters of those are of working age. As birth rates decline and life expectancy rises in richer countries, younger people of working age are needed, if only to keep going those services on which older local people depend.

A poll by Gallup found that 630 million people, or 13 per cent of the global population, would migrate in a world of open borders. That sounds like quite a lot. But many migrants just need temporary sanctuary or earning opportunities. Open borders makes return easier. Also, the imagined numbers of people liable to migrate for purely economic reasons are often inflated. For example, Greece in 2010 was in the grips of a dire economic crisis. Germany, by contrast, was thriving. Freedom of movement within the EU meant that Greeks could travel to Germany to work. Only 150,000 chose to do so.

Even under free movement systems certain rules can apply. Under the EU’s system, migrants must prove, after three months, that they are working, a registered student or have sufficient resources to support themselves and are not ‘a burden on the benefits system’. (These conditions are not applied in the UK.)

cultural, moral and social equality dividend

History has shown us time and again that national cultures are enriched by migration, and multicultural hubs become centres for creativity.

But above all, borders are an abomination. In the words of Dutch historian Rutger Bregman: ‘Borders are the single biggest cause of discrimination in all of world history. Inequality gaps between people living in the same country are nothing in comparison to those between separated global citizenries.’

Genuine universal freedom of movement would pose a real challenge to the global apartheid that prevails today.

New Internationalist issue 515 magazine cover This article is from the September-October 2018 issue of New Internationalist.
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