Barry York’s case for amnesty for asylum seekers in Australia

Barry York resides and works in Canberra, Australia. He is a former Research Officer with the Australian Parliamentary Library, where he was on the immigration and refugee desk. Below is York’s blog post A case for an amnesty for asylum seekers in Australia, republished with his permission, along with some commentary and additional links. The post was originally published on C21st Left, York’s blog.

Amnesties occur when a government grants a pardon to a group of individuals. It can apply to prisoners, or people in other forms of detention. Or even people not in prison or detention. An amnesty for asylum seekers would be a pathway to permanent residence.

Some historical background

Australia’s experience of amnesties in the immigration field date back to Australia Day (26 January) 1976 when Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser granted amnesty to illegal immigrants. At that time, this meant individuals who had entered Australia lawfully but overstayed their visas. The period in which applications could be made for amnesty expired on 30 April that year. It was an offer too good to refuse.

The Coalition government realized that these ‘illegals’ were in the country anyway. They were part of Australian society, despite their official status, and working or bludging, or having fun, playing music, fishing, reading, chatting with neighbours, going to the pub, etc, like the rest of us. And, again like the rest of us, they had a future here. Fraser’s standing in immigration history is being rewritten and mythologized by all-too-eager academics who seem to have put aside any semblance of critical approach.

Fraser was responsible for formalising the distinction between genuine and non-genuine refugees through the establishment of the Determination of Refugee Status Committee in 1978; a decision that laid the basis for all the subsequent problems arising from exclusion.

When it came to the ‘Australia Day’ amnesty of 1976, Fraser gave with one hand while taking with the other. He also funded a special unit to hunt them down. A cost-benefit analysis may have found that the benefits outweighed the costs in letting them stay. Not that that is the only – or main – point. But what is important to note is that the amnesty did not alter the basic policy: over-stayers after 30 April 1976 were in big trouble if caught.

Australia’s next experience of amnesty occurred during the Hawke years when, in 1989, Prime Minister Bob Hawke announced that the thousands of Chinese students studying in Australia would be permitted to remain here until 31 July 1990 on a temporary basis. This was later extended to June 1994 and then, as was the intention all along, 42,000 were allowed to apply for permanent residence. Again, it was an offer too good to refuse. Who in their right mind, after the Tiananmen massacre, would want to return to live under a social-fascist regime compared to life in bourgeois-democratic Australia?

The situation today: about 30,000 in limbo and detention

Currently, in Australia, living as part of our community and society but separated from it by various restrictions imposed by a ‘bridging visa’ system, there are more than 27,000 people, mostly asylum seekers waiting to have their cases determined. Most have been waiting for a long time. There are also 2,500 in detention centres.

It’s always helpful to look on the bright side in any bad situation. There are about ten thousand fewer in detention today than there were under Gillard’s Labor government. When it comes to detention of asylum seekers, Labor holds the record. (Lest we forget).

It is curious, to me, that pro-refugee groups tend to advocate the more rapid processing of these asylum seekers’ claims, as though it is fair enough to identify those who are not genuine refugees, rather than questioning the system itself. Sadly, this is the main paradigm in public discourse. Nearly everyone, the Greens included, think it’s fair enough to keep out asylum seekers who are not genuine refugees. So, a family might sell everything in, say, Iran, risk their lives by escaping, lose nearly everything to unscrupulous people-smugglers (note: these guys are not to be romanticized) and then having made it across the dangerous, often deadly, waters, under the old ‘Fraser system’ they could be be rejected because they are found to be ‘economic’ refugees not the ‘political’ type. Needless to say, within this paradigm, they have to leave the country, which they will not do voluntarily. They therefore (the dominant thinking goes) need to be detained in some way, lest they abscond into the community. The Greens want this process to be accomplished quickly, more efficiently and ‘nicely’; Labor and the Coalition are rather less polite about it, though at each election since 1996, Shadow Ministers for Immigration have promised to ‘speed up’ the determination process.

Those who were denied permanent residency because they were found to be economic refugees made the journey in order to have a better life – and, after such a journey you can be sure that means they will want to improve things generally. My parents paid ten pound each to get here in 1954, and were allowed in. Their motivation was a better life for themselves but mostly for my future. Both my parents made special contributions to their community (in Brunswick, Melbourne) and in other ways. Had they not been ‘authorised’ migrants but rather ‘economic refugees’, and allowed in, their contributions would have not been diminished in any way.

There are financial and human costs involved in maintaining these 30,000 people in their current state. Most of the costs are borne by government – you and me. We are denying each of them the opportunity to be productive and useful members of society, as a result of restrictions placed on them through the bridging visas. As I say to my wife: That asylum seeker lighting a fire and jumping up and down on top of the detention centre’s roof may be our next dentist! So, in addition to the cost of keeping 2,500 people in detention, and in addition to the cost of ensuring the other 27,000 don’t abscond, why not advocate something that makes much more sense than wanting nicer, more efficient, ways of keeping people out? Why not allow them the opportunity to contribute to the community and society without the restrictions of the bridging visas by letting them in?

In other words: let’s call for an amnesty for them all.

Given the current parliamentary political situation in Australia, the demand could reap some benefits. After all, isn’t the ALP keen to recapture votes it has lost to the Greens on this issue? Aren’t the Greens out to convince us that they represent a humanitarian alternative on the refugee issue? Wouldn’t Labor and the Greens have the numbers in this fine humanitarian and entirely practicable act? And 30,000 is not a big number. For heaven’s sake, 30,000 is about a third of the net loss Australia experienced through permanent departures last year. And last year we took in 200,000 newcomers.

Above all, from the viewpoint of the prevailing consensus, the actual refugee policy would not have to change. Much as I think it should, and must – and will (one day). An amnesty can be granted as an act of compassion, without any need to change current refugee policy.

‘Christian compassion’ for Australia Day next year.

Let’s call it… er… well… “Christian compassion”. Yes, Christian compassion for ‘Australia Day’ 2016. Marking the 40th anniversary of the first amnesty granted by a Coalition government in Australia.

Tony: ya there?



Related reading

Some related reading suggested by the author:

The remainder of the related reading section has been added by the Open Borders: The Case editorial team and has not been vetted by York, the author of the original post.

On migration to Australia:

On refugees:

On moderate immigration reform groups and the differences with those who support radical migration liberalization:

And another miscellaneous article: An Apology, Not a Fine by Joel Newman, Open Borders: The Case, February 24, 2013.

Tearing down Chesterton’s fence: the bigotry of border controls

A common reaction to the case for open borders is: that’s well and good, but immigration controls were established for good reason. Every country has them after all. Sure, the practical benefits of open borders look good, and there are plenty of ethical reasons why we shouldn’t close the door on foreigners. But why did our ancestors choose to do so then? Wouldn’t it be unwise to tear down the walls they erected without first ensuring their rationales don’t still apply today?

This kind of political reasoning is sometimes labeled Burkean conservatism. Edmund Burke, an Irishman who migrated to England, is often regarded as the founder of modern Western conservatism. Contrary to what the conservative label may suggest, he was no opponent of change; in criticising the French Revolution, he wrote: “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” Burke merely preferred a bias in the political process against change: you shouldn’t change things without a really really good reason. I don’t think of myself as a political conservative, but this seems like a fairly reasonable principle.

A metaphor often used to illustrate this principle is Chesterton’s fence, attributed to the English writer G.K. Chesterton:

There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable.

So before we tear down the walls our governments have erected, we should ask why these walls went up in the first place. This is not a question that is new to us, mind you; we first discussed it on this blog two years ago. The answer to Chesterton’s question depends, of course, on which country you’re a citizen of.

In my case, as a citizen of Malaysia and Southeast Asia, we have no tradition of walling up and sealing our borders. Our borders themselves were drawn in part because Napoleon invaded the Netherlands, not because of any organic movement towards fixed borders on our part. The original reason our governments established border controls was because our former colonial masters had set these up. It seemed like just one of those things you do once you’re an independent country.

So, where did the idea of border controls and deportations for our colonial masters come from? Well, in the case of Malaysia’s former colonial power, the United Kingdom, the first notable instance of the mass deportation and collective punishment of migrants was when King Edward I expelled all Jews from England. A few were allowed to return for visits on temporary visas, but between 1290 and 1657, all Jews residing in England were actually illegal immigrants. So at least in the case of the UK, border controls were originally rooted in racial and religious bigotry, not any sound policy reason.

This is not unusual. The United States, that nation of immigrants, first began to regulate immigration with the Page Act of 1875, a law whose primary objective was to exclude Chinese immigrants. It was followed by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which doesn’t really need any explanation. Many founding principles of US immigration law were established by the Chinese Exclusion Case — again, the name needs no explanation. The case still stands as good law today, even though scholars dismiss the actual reasoning therein as racist and unsound. Later expansions of US immigration controls explicitly aimed to exclude southern and eastern Europeans, especially those of Jewish descent.

The US is not alone in this regard. You can trace a similar history for almost every Anglo-Saxon “nation of immigrants”. Australia’s first immigration law was intentionally drafted to exclude Asian and African-American immigrants:

In 1901, 98% of people in Australia were white. Australia wanted to remain a country of white people who lived by British customs. Trade unions were keen to prevent labour competition from Chinese and Pacific Islander migrants who they feared would undercut wages. One of the first pieces of legislation passed in the new Federal Parliament was the Immigration Restriction Act. Now known as the infamous White Australia Policy it made it very difficult for Asians and Pacific Islanders to migrate to Australia…

The Immigration Restriction Act enabled the government to exclude any person who ‘when asked to do so by an officer fails to write out at dictation and sign in the presence of the officer, a passage of 50 words in length in a European language directed by the officer’. The Dictation Test could be administered to any migrant during the first year of residence.

It was initially proposed that the Test would be in English, but it was argued that this could discourage European migration and advantage Japanese people, and Americans of African descent. Instead, any ‘European language’ was specified.

This law establishing the “White Australia” policy was one of the very first passed by the Australian federal Parliament, and laid down some of the founding principles of Australian constitutional law. Looking across the Tasman Sea, here is how the New Zealand government describes the roots of its immigration controls:

Over the years, laws and regulations have been used to restrict or prevent the entry of ‘undesirable’ individuals or groups. Making New Zealand British and keeping the country white were the goals of immigration policy until the early 1970s. People from Britain have been actively recruited, while people perceived as ‘different’ have been kept out.

Strong imperial sentiments in the colonial period, and views about race through the 19th and much of the 20th centuries largely explain the purpose of New Zealand’s immigration restrictions.

Fellow Commonwealth country Canada on the other hand founded its immigration laws on the principle of promoting open immigration and safeguarding the passage of migrants. Score one for Canadian niceness?

Well, less than twenty years afterwards, the Canadian government, horrified by how many Chinese people were moving to Canada, furiously backpedaled. New laws enshrined state-sponsored discrimination against and exclusion of Chinese immigrants: these were the first major federal controls on immigration in Canada. Here’s how one Canadian newspaper characterises the history of Canadian immigration controls:

Troper points to a series of notorious examples of past discrimination in Canada’s immigration policy: the infamous Chinese head tax; the exclusion of black Oklahoman farmers from coming to Canada in 1910; the refusal in May 1914 of most of the 375 Indians aboard the Komagata Maru after landing in Vancouver, where the ship spent two months before it was ordered back to India; the exclusion of Jewish immigrants from the 1920s until after the Second World War.

These and other examples of discrimination paint a picture of a country — not unlike others around the world at the time — that was xenophobic and saw itself as an “Anglo-British outpost of British civility,” Troper says.

According to the Canadian Council for Refugees, specific measures taken by immigration officials included: an amendment to the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act to deport “domiciled aliens” with drug-related convictions (directed against the Chinese) in 1922; the prohibition of all Chinese immigrants in 1923; refusal of the ship the St. Louis, carrying 930 Jewish refugees, to land in 1939, forcing it to return to Europe — ultimately sentencing three-quarters of its passengers to death under the Nazi regime.

Let us return to my country’s former colonial master, the British. While the first recorded large-scale deportations occurred in 1290, the first recorded immigration legislation was actually the Aliens Act 1793. Prior to 1793, there actually were no legally-required controls or restrictions on foreigners entering the UK. This law imposed a new requirement on foreigners entering Great Britain: they must register their arrival with the government upon entry, and with a local Justice of the Peace. Failure to register would result in jail, pending deportation.

What was the reason for this law? The UK government archives today say: “It was introduced to manage the influx of people coming to Britain to escape the French Revolution.” But in reality, it was enacted to exclude French republicans who might have made their way to Britain, mingling among refugees. Fervent opponent of the French Revolution that he was, Edmund Burke favoured this law.

Curiously, Burke supported the Aliens Act 1793 even though it stripped foreigners of the right to habeas corpus: the right to challenge your detention in court, an ancient legal tradition rooted in the principle that no government may lock someone up and take away their liberty without just cause.

Under the Aliens Act 1793, the punishment for failing to register was not a fine. You could be jailed without bail and deported, without any right of habeas corpus or appeal, simply for failing to register. You could even be a bona fide refugee, with no revolutionary connections, and it would not matter one whit: you had no recourse to challenge your detention or deportation. The law’s own sponsor called it: “a bill for suspending the Habeas Corpus Act, as far as it should relate to the persons of foreigners.”

Did Burke ask himself whether he was unthinkingly tearing down Chesterton’s fence? Probably not; this was decades before Chesterton would be born. But one wonders what Burke was thinking. In 1789, Burke wrote: “Whenever a separation is made between liberty and justice, neither, in my opinion, is safe.” If anything counts as an injustice, surely it must be arbitrarily taking away the basic liberties of an entire class of people — not on the basis of any wrongdoing, but simply because of their condition of birth.

Oh, but it’s just foreigners being deprived of their liberty, you might say. Except that the Aliens Act 1793 was just the precursor to the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act 1794 — which is exactly what it says on the tin. Now nobody in Britain, citizen or foreigner, enjoyed the safeguards of the ancient writ of habeas corpus.

It is of course easy to condemn Burke and his Parliamentary colleagues in retrospect. If we had been in their shoes, facing possible insurrection fomented by, or invasion from, Revolutionary France, we too may have passed the same suspension of habeas corpus.

But this incident illustrates an important principle that guides how I think about immigration law: if a circumstance so endangers our state or society that we must restrict basic freedoms, then so be it. But if such a circumstance is only dangerous enough to warrant invading the rights of the peaceful stranger in our land — whilst leaving potential traitors, terrorists, or criminals amongst our own citizenry unaffected — then I am much more skeptical. Either the situation is so dire that everyone’s liberty must be put at risk, or it is simply not that dire.

Of course, there are fine gradations in between “that dire” and “not that dire”. And the more dire the situation is, the more justified and less arbitrary some distinctions based on nationality or even ethnicity become: how strongly would one object to Polish controls on German entry in the days leading up to the Nazi invasion of 1939? The problem of justice arises when you assume every scenario our governments face is tantamount to that kind of emergency. At some point, you land on a slippery slope that has you deporting Jewish refugees and throwing your own citizens into prison camps.

And while situations like a literal world war may merit restrictions on the movement of foreigners, no sane person can claim we live in such a situation today. When we aren’t at war, and when most of the people seeking entry to our shores are citizens of countries at peace or even allied with us, you can’t simply erect an automatic bar to entry on the basis that governments need extraordinary power to protect us from an invasion that nobody believes is coming.

In spite of this, discretionary and arbitrary immigration controls which assume every immigrant poses a dire threat to our society, guilty until proven innocent, are the laws of almost every land today. I submit that such paranoid discriminatory laws are all out of proportion to the risk immigrants pose. Of course anyone can name an immigrant who has done something wrong. You can select any sufficiently large group of people and find all kinds of criminals and wrongdoers amongst them. But the burden of proof rests on the restrictionist to show that arbitrarily excluding most foreigners is in fact a sound and proportionate policy.

This is quite Burkean, really: mind you, the alien registration requirement which Burke supported was later repealed after the crisis had passed. A literal Burkean immigration policy would be open borders, with the temporary suspension of habeas corpus in times when invasion or insurrection seemed imminent. The UK’s first immigration controls were only enacted over a century later with the Aliens Act 1905.

The roots of this law? Well, it came after the passage of anti-Chinese immigration laws in colonies like Canada and Australia. It explicitly borrowed wording and diction from the United States’s own anti-Chinese immigration statutes. Like Edward I’s Edict of Expulsion in 1290, its primary target was immigrant Jews.

Although on this occasion, the government had enough scruples to avoid any explicit reference to race, as historian Alison Bashford and law professor Jane McAdam document, contemporaries understood the law’s definition of migrant to be aimed at Jews originating from eastern Europe, and the law was incessantly criticised for its anti-Semitism. More than that, opponents explicitly attacked the law for uprooting ancient British tradition (emphasis added):

For many British parliamentarians, then, the introduction of the Aliens Act was not merely a natural response to a world of increasing global movement (and regulation of that movement); it was a highly controversial step. It was considered ‘drastic’ and ‘revolutionary in its character,’ even by those who put forward the various bills. Many considered that the principle of free movement, and, accordingly,the tradition of having no entry regulations, was part of what distinguished British practice; even part of what constituted British “liberty.”

The response of its advocates, such as Herbert Asquith, who would later serve as British Prime Minister? To embrace these accusations. Bashford and McAdam (emphasis added):

Asquith spoke in support of the bill, but nonetheless recognized its significance: “This Bill, it must be conceded, is an entirely new departure in legislation, for it gives to an officer of the Executive, by his own act, without any reference to a Court of law or to judicial procedure, power to prohibit admission to these shores of any person who is not a subject of theCrown, provided he comes within certain categories.”

The suspension of habeas corpus, limited to times of great danger in Burke’s day, now became an everyday occurrence for any foreigner daring to enter Britain. The revolutionary and radical arbitrary dictatorial power of the government to exclude foreigners at will was now enshrined. Today, it has been so commonplace for the past century to the point that we hardly think of it.

So if we think of immigration restrictions as Chesterton’s fence then, how should we characterise the rationale for erecting this fence? If we look at the raw texts of these statutes, we find many references to excluding paupers, the diseased, and the criminal. We can debate the extent to which these exclusions are just, but many of them make some sense on the face of it. But if we look at the intentions of the men (and women, to the extent they were involved) who drew up and bequeathed to us the founding principles of modern immigration restrictions, we find some of the worst and most blatant injustices in the history of mankind.

Immigration laws were established in theory to promote public safety and order. But in reality, their promoters drew them up to exclude people solely because of the colour of their skin, or the religion they practiced. You merely have to scratch the surface of these laws to uncover some of the ugliest expressions of base bigotry and prejudice, be it against the Chinese, the Japanese, the Italians, the Irish, the Jews, and so on. Little wonder that journalist Stephan Faris in his review of the modern border regime could write of things coming full circle, with South African apartheid using “immigration laws” as a figleaf to disguise blatant racism:

To be sure, there are differences between the global system of immigration restrictions and South Africa’s attempt to entrench white privilege through the partitioning of its territory. But it should give us pause to think that when the architects of one of history’s most recognized evils set out to codify their system of injustice, they looked at our borders and passports and saw a lot to like. Intentions aside, the biggest difference between the two is that the South Africans wanted to draw the boundaries and assign the nationalities. We make do with the existing ones.

It may of course be true that serendipitously, these laws founded in racism and unempirical prejudice are in fact beneficial and good. But let’s have an open conversation about the benefits of these restrictions then. Let’s place the burden of proof where it belongs: on those who want to prop up those legal walls and fences erected to preserve and entrench bigotry.

Once we have established the original rationale for these laws and found them wanting, we can no longer resort to tradition as reason enough to keep them. Whatever your views on the issues of gay marriage and family rights, I think US judge Richard Posner’s pointed questions in the litigation of this issue apply all the more to border controls:

Posner: What concrete factual arguments do you have against homosexual marriage?

Samuelson: Well, we have, uh, the Burkean argument, that it’s reasonable and rational to proceed slowly.

Posner: That’s the tradition argument. It’s feeble! Look, they could have trotted out Edmund Burke in the Loving case. What’s the difference? . . . There was a tradition of not allowing black and whites, and, actually, other interracial couples from marrying. It was a tradition. It got swept aside. Why is this tradition better?

Samuelson: The tradition is based on experience. And it’s the tradition of western culture.

Posner: What experience! It’s based on hate, isn’t it?

Samuelson: No, not at all, your honor.

Posner: You don’t think there’s a history of rather savage discrimination against homosexuals?

The only distinction here is that border controls aren’t even a real tradition. The kind of controls on the scale first adopted in the late 19th century and early 20th century didn’t exist in Burke’s day. Massive border controls that arbitrarily restrict human movement purely on the basis of a condition of birth are a modern innovation. And, to borrow Judge Posner’s words, they are an innovation rooted in hate and savage discrimination.Anti-Japanese/-Indian rally

Arizona farmers protest Japanese and Indian farming in the state, 1934. Source: Americana, the E-Journal of American Studies in Hungary.

Immigration controls are an injustice that we must tear down as far as we can. “This policy benefits our race” or “this policy benefits our country” are not reasons enough to excuse a preventable injustice. As Burke himself said:

Justice is itself the great standing policy of civil society; and any eminent departure from it, under any circumstances, lies under the suspicion of being no policy at all.

In 1879, Chinese-Australians Lowe Kong Meng, Cheok Hong Cheong, and Louis Ah Mouy authored a pamphlet lamenting the racist immigration laws that uprooted their freedom of movement and residence. Today, in this era of vast migration restrictions, their words ring true literally more than ever before:

In the name of heaven, we ask, where is your justice? Where your religion? Where your morality? Where your sense of right and wrong? Where your enlightenment? Where your love of liberty?

We recognise today the great wrongs that our border controls once visited upon the Chinese, Jewish, or other migrants of the day. But we preserve the same principles of dictatorial discretion and arbitrary discrimination that marked the very exclusionary and unjust laws which victimised these people. There may be good reasons to preserve border controls. But unless you unreservedly embrace prejudice as a sound principle for making policy, Chesterton’s fence is not such a justification. Rather than sound and solid policy, the foundations of our border controls are just rotten cesspools of hatred and bigotry.

The image featured at the top of this post is of an exhibit from the Museum of Chinese in America, depicting a poster from the late 19th century advocating the exclusion of Chinese immigrants. The photograph of the exhibit is from Robin Lung.

April 2015 in review

April 2015 was the highest traffic month for Open Borders: The Case, even though we had a much smaller number of new posts than usual, and we did not have any special events such as the Open Borders Day we had last month.

Social media successes

The following pages and posts published this month did best on social media:

In addition, an earlier post by John Lee, Literally refusing to rescue drowning people: your taxpayer funds at work, putting immigrants to death, January 9, 2015, was promoted on Facebook and posted on Twitter in light of heightened interest in the subject of migrants dying at sea in the wake of the April 2015 Mediterranean Sea migrant shipwrecks. The post now stands at 267 Facebook engagements and 26 Twitter engagements. It also led to Jasmine Coleman, a journalist at the BBC, contacting John Lee for comments on the issue that were published in this article.

Our total Facebook spend for the month was $20: $10 on Merrill’s post and $10 on Lee’s old post.

Search interest

Users who come via search (which constitutes about 60% of our traffic) generally go to the site’s background pages rather than blog posts, but there are some blog posts that get a decent amount of search traffic. These have remained fairly constant since January, albeit with a few changes. Data below is from Google Analytics, using the integration with Google Webmaster Tools.

  • In the wake of the 2015 Nepal earthquake (that hit the region on Saturday, April 25, 2015), there was a substantial increase in search-driven traffic to Vipul Naik’s blog post Nepal and India: an open borders case study, published March 21, 2014. However, this traffic seemed driven largely by people looking for material on Nepal rather than people specifically interested in open borders, and its engagement with our site was minimal. We therefore did not promote the post on social media. The page was shown in 75,000 Google Search queries and was clicked about 2,500 times (a 3.33% CTR).
  • The blog post Bangladesh and India: move towards open borders by Vipul Naik, January 15, 2015, was shown in 40,000 search queries and got 1,600 clicks (a 4% CTR). The search interest was sustained rather than based on any topical events.
  • The blog post Immigration and the US Constitution by Ilya Somin, March 18, 2013, was shown in 6,500 search queries and was clicked 400 times (a 6.15% CTR). The search interest was sustained rather than based on any topical events.

Open Borders Action Group highlights

The Open Borders Action Group, a Facebook discussion group created for more free-flowing discussion of issues related to migration, has continued to grow in size and remains active. Some of the top posts there for the month are listed below:

Site traffic: details

Pageviews for Open Border: The Case:

Month and year Pageview count (WordPress) Pageview count (Google Analytics)
April 2015 40,238 38,824
March 2015 38,289 36,826
February 2015 26,205 25,351
April 2014 16,601 17,483
March 2014 22,808 23,329
February 2014 14,964 15,409

Here is the WordPress traffic by day for the past few weeks:

April 2015 WordPress traffic screenshot

Here is a Google Analytics screenshot for the month:

Google Analytics screenshot for April 2015 traffic

Other membership and engagement numbers

Free Havens for Refugees (mostly by Pieter Cleppe)

Pieter Cleppe, head of the Brussels office of the think tank Open Europe, has written a piece advocating something akin to my idea of passport-free charter cities. (Also see my thoughts on charter city constitutions here and here,  my post about the abortive charter city experiment in Honduras, and my post “Make More Singapores!”) Cleppe advocates “free havens” in response to the recent tragedies in the Mediterranean. The rest of this post is by Cleppe (see the original piece here, it is reprinted with his permission), except a few comments of mine at the end:

Free havens as a solution to the refugee crisis

The latest tragedies in the Mediterranean once again highlight that migration is without any doubt one of the challenging issues of our time. Few dispute that it would be a bad idea to close borders completely. On the other hand, few support opening borders completely, recognising the obvious downsides to this.

The debate mostly focuses on the type and number of immigrants allowed into wealthier societies. There is very little debate about what to do with those wanting to leave their country when even the most generous quotas would have been filled.

Since 2011, 3 million people have already fled Syria, and 6.5 million are internally displaced. The EU hasn’t accepted more than 200.000 of them, while it faces ever increasing numbers of refugees, from Syria and other places, attempting to enter illegally. Even if Western countries drastically increased their willingness to welcome refugees, this would in no way serve demand. Nearly everyone agrees refugees should have the right to flee war-torn countries, but politically, there is no willingness to welcome everyone, whether one agrees with that or not.

The solution proposed below is a humble attempt to launch this debate and provide a more sustainable solution than the ones offered in the past.

One way to deal with this challenge has been to ignore it and to let people sort it out themselves. The result has been that the most vulnerable were delivered to human traffickers, at best reaching the Western world as an illegal immigrant, at worst finding the Mediterranean Sea as their graveyard.

A better solution has been to provide shelter for them in refugee camps. This clearly is an honourable attempt to minimise suffering. There are currently estimated to be up to 50 million refugees. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees offers them protection and life-saving supplies at refugee camps in more than 125 countries. Often, these camps aren’t temporary and sometimes conditions are horrendous. Often, refugees are also banned from becoming economically active. Thailand, for example, banned Burmese refugees living on the Thai-Burmese border from leaving their camps in 2014.

One of the 120.000 Burmese refugees in Thailand describes how living in such a camp, with its travel and work restrictions, while being forced to be nearly completely dependent on outside help for food, shelter, protection and other basic needs, have adverse psychological and social effects on the refugees:

“Living in the camp is similar to living in prison because I can’t go outside or make my own decision. I can commute only in the camp. The camp is surrounded by barbed wire. If we go outside of the camp, Thai police will arrest us. In the long run, it affects not only my physical but also my mental health.” (Christine, 22, refugee, who spoke with Burma Link in Mae La refugee camp in May 2014)

Lebanon’s 470,000 Palestinian refugees, of whom over 50 percent live in 12 refugee camps who’re controlled by competing Palestinian armed groups, face restrictions to practice about 30 different professions. Whatever solutions one has for the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, surely condemning generations of Palestinian refugees to this fate can’t be one of them.

A preferable solution could be to create “Free havens”: a refugee zone but then one with stable rule of law, protection and opportunities for economic investment, where refugees can actually build up a life and aren’t condemned to wasting their precious time.

This has been tried, but only very occasionally, although with extraordinary success. Most prominently in the last century, it was applied in Hong Kong, effectively a refugee zone, governed by the British rule of law, welcoming millions of Chinese wanting to fled war, totalitarian rule and turmoil in mainland China. Refugee camps at best offer refugees safety, but Hong Kong offered those Chinese refugees something which even the best refugee camps can’t offer: the opportunity to develop yourself.

Refugees, broadly defined as people fleeing from both war and economy misery, aren’t asking for a lot. They want a better life. Not necessarily a whole of a lot better. Only slightly better, if nothing else is possible. Refugees don’t only want shelter. They want to be able to develop themselves. Why would they need to wait before their country returns to the better or before wealthier countries decide they’re willing to welcome them?

A tiny percentage of land in the world is urbanized, perhaps around three percent. Would it really be so impossible to identify a place where no-one lives and welcome anyone willing to go there? Would it really be impossible to identify a place where really no-one would be bothered? If a city the size of Las Vegas can be successfully developed in the middle of a desert, there shouldn’t even be any requirements in terms of average temperature or access to the sea, although a climate like California would clearly be preferred.

It’s highly likely that such a place would be part of the territory of a State. But why would this State not allow “Free havens” to be hosted? Perhaps in some remote part of it, not to bother any of its citizens with any possible burden, especially if it would be financially compensated for it, for example by charity organisations wanting to offer refugees a better perspective or by companies investing in these Free havens, which could attract a lot of skilled individuals?

Why would companies not be interested to invest in these Free havens, just as they invest in the poorest parts of the world already, which often would not offer the same standards of justice and safety that such a Free haven would offer, given that these Free havens could be administrated by officials from countries with a certain level of rule of law?

Why would such a Free haven offer standards of justice and safety that are sufficiently high to make such a project succeed, so people would actually voluntarily want to go there, and companies would actually want to invest, thereby freeing up the resources needed to compensate the host State to actually allow such a Free haven to exist on its territory?

The answer is simple: For this project to be a success, it needs to become more safe than the most unsafe place in the world and its investment climate should beat the most horrible place on earth to do business, to attract those fellow human beings who actually have to survive there at the moment. Surely that shouldn’t be too much of a challenge. Would it really be so hard to do better than North Korea, Syria or Congo?

This project, which could be driven by the private sector, states, supranational organisations or various actors working together, doesn’t exclude everything that’s already happening: opening borders for trade, trying to develop poor countries, attempting to pacify violent conflicts, providing emergency aid to the most needed, allow more migrants to enter wealthy countries or develop refugee camps when no other option is there. This project simply offers a solution for immigrants who are not or insufficiently helped by what is already been done: the vast majority of them. If it is so simple, why not just take action?

So what is this again?

Let’s create “Free havens”: refugee zones but then with rule of law, protection and opportunities for economic investment, where refugees can actually build up a life and aren’t condemned to wasting their precious time

Which countries would allow such zones on their territory?

That’s a challenge the EU is currently facing, at least if it continue with its idea to establish immigrant-processing centres outside the EU. These offshore centres may be based in key transit countries such as Niger, Egypt, Turkey or Lebanon. France, Germany and Malta would reportedly be keen on the idea. When seeking refuge there, asylum seekers would get the chance to indicate in which EU country they’d like to apply for asylum, and at one point there may even be a system of forced “burden sharing”, which is however unlikely, given that national politicians in the EU rightly think such sensitive policies should be decided at the national level.

To convince them, Niger, Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon or maybe even Morrocco would logically need to be compensated for hosting such centres. Given the huge amount of funds available in national and European aid budgets, reaching a compromise shouldn’t be impossible.

The only element the EU Commission would need to change in its current plan, is to combine its welcoming of refugees offshore with a rule of law – mission. The EU has some experience with “rule of law”-missions. Part of its EULEX-mission in Kosovo was to administer justice in the most delicate sectors over there. It must be said that there have been major problems with the implementation, but at least Kosovo has known some kind of stability. Either way, the main difference between Free havens and the mission in Kosovo would be that anyone moving to such a Free haven would do so voluntarily.

Has something like this ever been tried?

As I made clear earlier: yes, indeed. Hong Kong effectively served as such a Free haven to Chinese refugees. It probably also served to convince mainland-China to choose the path of international trade.

Why would companies want to invest there?

Fair question. The likes of Ikea or Coca Cola would certainly need to consider this carefully, but a safe investment zone governed by officials from countries with a relatively high level of rule of law surely should be able to compete with countries where a revolution or social unrest is always only around the corner?

How much would this cost?

The Belgian police and justice system costs around 3 billion euro per year, to serve 11 million people. With 10 billion per year, which is not even 10 percent of the EU’s 130 billion euro budget, 20 million refugees could already be welcomed, as 7 billion euro would be reserved for basic infrastructure. Also co-financing from investors could be attracted. Even if only 1 million out of 50 million refugees could be welcomed at first, it would be a massive step forward.

Anyone dealing with the EU budget knows massive spending improvements could be made. More than 270 billion euros are still being sent to agricultural landowners, including the Queen of England, between 2014 and 2010. Given how the EU’s agricultural policies have been hurting developing countries for decades, it wouldn’t be such a bad target to find funds.

Is it politically feasible?

Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair once proposed off-shore asylum centres, the European Commission is keen them, several member states are open to something like this. The whole idea really comes down to accepting two realities: one reality is that many people currently want to flee their country. Another reality is that a large majority of the European population, rightly or wrongly, is only willing to accept a tiny part of all the refugees in the world. So welcoming them in a safe place somewhere else is not more than obvious solution.

What if it goes wrong?

Amnesty International has criticized the European Commission’s suggestion to externalize refugee policy, warning that there may be “human rights violations” in many countries outside of the EU. Fair point, but this is being addressed when EU countries themselves would run these zones. What if EU countries would still mismanage the whole thing, and these Free havens wouldn’t be so nice at all? Even in that case, given that every refugee would obviously only go there voluntarily, people would only come if the welcoming zone would be nicer than refugee camps or the places from which they are fleeing. Surely, it can’t be hard to beat these standards?

Won’t it lead to a brain drain?

In the event that these Free havens turn out to be a massive success and start attracting not only desperate refugees but also people that are already relatively well off, we would indeed face this discussion. I won’t go into detail here, but there are also upsides to intelligent people moving to work in wealthier countries, given the fact that they can send more money back home to help their families than if they had stayed.

Isn’t this “apartheid”?

When you accept that migration should be limited, you accept a certain form of “apartheid” already. To support unlimited migration is a fair position to hold, but has very little support. Why then not try to improve the fate of those who’re not welcome in wealthier countries?

Pieter Cleppe

There’s no explicit open borders advocacy here. (Open borders is a “fair position to hold, but has very little support.”) But if a global archipelago of passport-free charter cities were established, the right to emigrate would be effectively realized, even if the more general right to migrate were not. I’m all for it. And this is a good example of how human rights can be the thin end of the wedge for open borders, as religious freedom was once the thin end of the wedge, first for freedom of speech, expression, and conscience, then for democracy. If we take seriously the responsibility of the international community not to drown desperate people or trap them in places where their lives are in danger, we will be on a path that, if followed devoutly enough, leads quite far in the direction of open borders. It would be, among other things a fitting Western repentance for the blood of the Jews of the MS St. Louis.

Related reading

In addition to the links included by Smith in the leading para, the following might be of interest to readers:

Open Borders and the Hive Mind Hypothesis

I recently finished a (fairly advanced) draft of “The Global Economic Impact of Open Borders,” posted to SSRN here. Here’s the abstract:

Open borders, in the sense of the abolition of policies restricting migration, would cause billions of people to migrate, and result in almost a doubling of world GDP. Based on a model that stresses human capital as a determinant of the wealth and poverty of nations, but which also has a spatial element and allows total factor productivity to differ across cities, two openborders scenarios are constructed. In the first, “pure market clearing” scenario, world GDP rises 91% as 82% of the world’s population migrates, mostly to the West, and the living standards of unskilled workers worldwide rise to 26% of the US level. In the second scenario, with several adjustments made to favor greater realism at the expense of some arbitrariness, world GDP rises 85% as 58% of the world’s population migrates, and the living standards of unskilled workers worldwide rise to 31% of the US level.

For more on this paper, see my guest post at Market Monetarist last fall; and my three-part series on “Open borders and the economic frontier” (part 1, part 2, and part 3).

While I plan to do another round of revisions (a sorely needed Acknowledgments section is high on the priority list), I want to bring out some of the main themes of the paper, through blog posts at Open Borders: The Case. One of these is that while the claim that open borders would dramatically raise world GDP (“double world GDP” is the usual, sometimes criticized as over-optimistic but in my view apt, slogan) is robust to many changes in assumptions, it cannot withstand the “hive mind” hypothesis about the determination of GDP.

In technical jargon, the “hive mind” hypothesis is that TFP (total factory productivity) depends on human capital externalities. In non-technical language, the hive mind hypothesis is that people’s productivity and earnings depend, not so much on their own intelligence or skill, as on that of people around them.

(In the academic literature, Jones (2011), “The Hive Mind Across Asia,” seems to be the most prominent paper using the phrase “hive mind” in this sense, but Lucas (1988) is a seminal paper for the idea that human capital externalities are an important determinant of TFP, on which a large literature builds. John Lee comments here on how Docquier, Machado, and Sekkat (2014), the chief outlier among papers estimating the global economic impact of open borders, uses a form of the hive mind hypothesis to arrive at its conclusion that open borders would only raise world GDP by 4%.)

The principal motivation for the hive mind hypothesis is to explain the fact that highly skilled workers do not tend to earn more where skills are scarce. If anything, they earn more where they are abundant. A well-designed study by Michael Clemens uses the randomness of US visa allocations to show clearly that Indian software programmers earn far more in the US than in India, for reasons that seem to indicate higher productivity, since they’re working for the same companies, and the companies would have no reason to sponsor their visas if they didn’t anticipate a productivity increase sufficient to justify the higher salary. Against this, my own experience in Malawi taught me that what Amy Chua (2004) calls “market-dominant minorities” can achieve, in the poorest countries on earth, living standards much superior to those of middle-class Westerners in some respects (land, servants, to some extent leisure) while inferior in others (access to shopping, internet) in such a way that, overall, they might be rated as similar; and Chua (2004) gives very extensive evidence that this is true not just in Malawi but all over the world. My rough assessment is that while Indian software programmers might be far more productive in the US, the living standard earned by human capital is similar all over the world. (More precisely, the additional living standard that a worker with human capital equivalent to that of an average American will enjoy, over and above whatever a local unskilled worker would earn varies by less than an order of magnitude across countries.) Still, even if skills don’t earn less where they are scarce, they ought in theory to earn more, and that they don’t is a mystery demanding explanation.

Normally, a factor of production is most valuable where it is scarcest. Thus, water is intensely valued in California but less so on the rainy East Coast. Land is very expensive in Manhattan, where it is scarce (relative to population), but much less so in Montana, where there’s plenty of it. We should ordinarily expect the same thing with respect to brains, skills, human capital. They should be expensive where they are scarce, cheap where they are abundant. In fact, human capital seems to earn as much or more where it is abundant. To resort to technical language again (sometimes it clarifies) there is a correlation between average human capital and total factor productivity (TFP); and the hive mind hypothesis is essentially that this is causal, with the direction of causation running from average human capital to TFP. There may be a variety of reasons, e.g., smart people vote more like economists (so that democracy => good policy works only as well as the voters are smart), or smart people are better at cooperating, or maybe smart people need stimulation from other smart people to exercise and improve their intelligence. That’s the hive mind hypothesis in a nutshell. If you want more, ParaPundit’s post “Benthamite Libertarian Collectivists Wrong on Open Borders” has a good explanation (though without the term “hive mind”) with further links. Even better are the extensive contributions by anonymous commenter BK at the “Open borders and the economic frontier” posts linked above, and also here and here. Chaper 2 of Collier’s Exodus, which I review here, has what might be called an institutional spin on the hive mind hypothesis.

If the hive hypothesis is true (if average human capital is causally linked to TFP), what does it imply for open borders?

First, if the hive mind hypothesis is true, the impact of open borders on world GDP would probably be far less favorable than most of the existing estimates suggest. In one of the two model extensions that make TFP a function of human capital externalities, I find that world GDP falls by nearly one-quarter under open borders. One critique of open borders is that it would kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. The hive mind hypothesis is probably the form of “killing the goose” argument that has the best support in the literature at the moment.

Second, even in my most pessimistic hive mind scenario, unskilled workers worldwide end up with living standards 15% of the current US level, an order of magnitude above current levels. This is a counter-intuitive result, because in essence, what it shows is that the seemingly most pessimistic open borders scenario, killing the goose, and the seemingly most optimistic open borders scenario, the end of poverty, are actually not inconsistent! Even if the institutional harms/negative externalities/various downsides of open borders were severe enough that world GDP, far from doubling, actually fell substantially, yet billions of the world’s most destitute people would still see their incomes multiplied five-fold, ten-fold, or more, because they could live under institutions that, while much degraded relative to the pre-open borders rich world, were still a good deal better than those they suffer under today; and also because they would benefit from greatly increased opportunities for productive complementarity with skilled workers, which the status quo precludes. Is it worth reducing world GDP by one-quarter to raise the wages of the bottom billion ten-fold? Probably so, if it came to that.

Third– and this is why ParaPundit misses the mark– whatever the normative implications of the hive mind hypothesis may be with respect to immigration, they certainly do not suggest that the status quo is anything like optimal. If one’s goal is to maximize world GDP, the only advantage of the status quo, relative to open borders, is that it involves some human capital stratification, allowing today’s rich countries to be productive “hive minds” of high human capital people. But the migration status quo is a very suboptimal human capital stratification system. First, there should be open borders for smart people– no reason to shut them out– and the admission of people with high IQs and advanced degrees to rich countries could be far more automatic and transparent. We could create schemes to bribe low-IQ, less-educated citizens of rich countries to emigrate and surrender their citizenship, since such emigration should raise average human capital, and TFP, in the source country. We could establish charter cities for low-IQ people to emigrate to, and a bit of ongoing foreign aid might be a fiscal price well worth paying to have them out of the way. Meanwhile, we could establish gated communities for smart people, graduating them into increasing levels of self-government, until eventually they attain full independence as (not philosopher-kings but) philosopher-republics.

Critics of open borders from a hive mind angle, like ParaPundit, can be called on to explain why they don’t advocate a global program of maximal human capital stratification, since that’s what their arguments would really point to.

I’m skeptical of the hive mind hypothesis, and I don’t think open borders would kill the goose that lays the golden eggs; I think it would double world GDP. But I don’t rule the hive mind hypothesis out either, and it’s one of the most respectable reasons to dissent from claims that open borders would raise world GDP dramatically.

More related reading

  • Grappling with the Goose by Paul Crider, Open Borders: The Case, February 17, 2014.
  • How migration liberalization might eliminate most absolute poverty by Carl Shulman, May 27, 2014, making a very similar point. Here is the summary:

    While some estimates that open borders would double gross world product implicitly project the migration of most of the developed country labor force, a much smaller quantity of migration might cut global poverty rates by half or better. The additional income to the poorest required to bring them above extreme poverty lines is in the hundreds of billions of dollars per annum, while doubling world product would approach a hundred trillion dollars of additional annual output. Legal barriers to migration, and blocked desire to migrate, are most extreme for the poorest countries, suggesting extra migrants from those sources. While migrants may receive more income gains than are needed to escape absolute poverty remittances to family, trade, and investment may help to distribute the gains more widely. Overall, the case that migration liberalization for less skilled workers could eliminate most absolute poverty is significantly more robust than the most extreme estimates of global output gains.

  • Intelligence, international development, and immigration by Vipul Naik, Open Borders: The Case, August 19, 2012. See also the follow-up Garett Jones responds to my intelligence post.
Creative Commons License Barry York’s case for amnesty for asylum seekers in Australia is licensed by Open Borders Admin under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.