5 Reasons Global Free Movement Isn’t Such a Bad Idea

by Aisha Dodwell

23 April 2018


Arguing for fewer immigration controls has become an invitation for abuse and ridicule. We’re told the idea of softer borders is ‘crazy’ or ‘absurd’. But history will judge those who defend borders in the same way it judges those who defended slavery or supported apartheid. In a word: badly.

Under our current border regime the rich already move freely. A Brit can travel to North Africa for some winter sun, but someone fleeing for their life in the other direction is left to die at sea.

The defenders of hard borders claim there is no other option. They are wrong. Here are five reasons why.

1. Borders don’t prevent chaos – they create it.

Far from making the world a safer place, borders do the opposite – they make it more violent. A great number of wars in modern history have been fought over borders, and it’s no accident that since abolishing hard borders in western Europe the continent has seen the longest period of peace in its existence.

Migration is an integral part of human history, and we were migrating way before we could even read and write. Many of the borders we take for granted today are modern phenomena – simply a product of the colonial interests of European leaders.

Modern immigration controls are not about maintaining global stability. They reflect a desire by governments to keep out ‘unwanted’ people. Britain’s first immigration law, the 1905 Aliens Act, aimed to prevent Jewish immigration from eastern Europe, the ‘unwanted migrants’ of the era.

Today, borders act as a form of global apartheid. They segregate people, preserving privilege by locking people out from resources available within wealthy countries.

2. Tighter borders don’t stop people migrating.

Billions are spent on brutal borders, but this doesn’t stop people moving. It simply makes their journeys more dangerous or forces them into the hands of smugglers. According to the International Organisation for Migration there continues to be an upward trend in global migration, meaning people continue to move despite border restrictions getting tighter.

About 5,000 people die annually in the Mediterranean alone trying to reach Europe. Meanwhile, Europe’s externalised borders in transit countries such as Libya or Sudan subject migrants to abuse and torture. Even if people do reach Europe, many find themselves locked up. In the UK every year over 30,000 people are incarcerated indefinitely for having committed no crime other than crossing an imaginary line. Many are then deported to face the very violence or hardship they fled in the first place.

3. It’s not migrants who lower wages.

Migrants don’t lower wages. A study by the London School of Economics found immigration had no effect on wages or employment levels, while a Bank of England study found very minimal impacts (under 2%) in some low-skilled service jobs. Conversely, economists in Denmark found low-skilled wages and employment actually rose in response to immigration.

This shows there is no great threat to jobs and wages from immigrants. It’s bosses that determine workers’ pay, and governments who fail to introduce measures such as a proper living wage. The response to wage repression should never be stronger borders, but a push to organise across them and to fight for better rights for working people wherever they’re from.

It’s fundamentally unjust that corporations can cross borders to exploit labour or extract resources and that money moves freely while people cannot. We should be controlling capital and freeing people, not the other way round.

4. Most people aren’t against global free movement.

Let’s be honest – most people already support free movement… for themselves. We rarely hear opponents of free movement arguing to curtail their own rights to travel where they please. The argument for tighter borders is always premised on the idea that it’s other people’s movement being restricted, and these ‘others’ are all too often those with the greatest need to cross borders.

War, persecution or economic deprivation often leave people with no choice but to move. The UNHCR estimates that 20 people every second are forced to flee their homes. As the impact of climate change hits this will get much worse. But we live in a world where the lottery of birth, not need, determines whether you can exercise the right to free movement. A British passport holder can travel visa-free to 160 countries. If you’re Iraqi, that number is just 29.

5. Open borders are good for the global economy.

According to economist Michael Clemens, getting rid of immigration controls could double global GDP. When people move freely they not only work and pay taxes, but also contribute to society and create jobs. And because migrants often send money back to their country of origin, free movement can be positive for many economies in the Global South too. In fact, it could make the world economy more equal as employers would not get away with paying poverty wages if the labour force is free to vote with its feet.

Ironically, in places like the UK, where so-called ‘illegal’ immigrants are stopped from working or accessing services, it means the country misses out of the full economic benefit of these people’s presence.

Borders aren’t working. The century-long experiment in walling some (but not all) people into arbitrary boundaries has failed. It’s time to fight for alternatives.

We can’t end all borders tomorrow. The road to equality of movement, like the road to the abolition of slavery and apartheid, will be hard. But we can begin to take steps to make this happen by working towards global standards for workers’ rights and greater economic equality between countries.

While those who seek to defend the status quo may ridicule the idea of open borders, there will come a day when people will ask how our generation allowed this global apartheid to exist. Fencing the poor inside fortified borders will be to future generations what slavery is to us.

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