International Migrants Day versus Open Borders Day

Last year, we decided to observe March 16 as the annual Open Borders Day. The date was chosen because Open Borders: The Case, the website, officially launched on March 16, 2012. Broadly, the goal of the day is to ponder a world with open borders, the moral case for it, and how such a world might differ from the status quo.

Before settling on March 16, we had an internal debate among our regular and some of our guest bloggers about the choice of date. Various dates, including the Fourth of July, had been proposed, but we ultimately decided to go with our own day, so that it would be free of the baggage (positive or negative) of other days, and could be used to highlight open borders as an issue in its own right. At the time, I (and as far as I can make out, the others participating in the discussion) weren’t aware of perhaps the closest contender: International Migrants Day. The day was designated and is recognized by the United Nations to be on December 18 each year, starting in the year 2000. The Migrant Rights Network has a nice-looking website devoted to the day.

In this blog post, I explain three ways that International Migrants Day and Open Borders Day differ:

  1. Focus: the status quo versus open borders
  2. The attention to migrants as a separate class of people
  3. The focus on migrants, territorialism, and the overlooking of quantity issues

#1: Focus: the status quo versus open borders

The goal of International Migrants Day is to shed a spotlight on the global migrants in our midst today (about 3% of the world population, or a little over 200 million people) and consider their effects on society as well as society’s treatment of them. According to Wikipedia:

This day is observed in many countries, intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations through the dissemination of information on human rights and fundamental political freedoms of migrants, and through sharing of experiences and the design of actions to ensure the protection of migrants.


The International Migrants Day is seen firstly as an opportunity to recognize the contributions made by millions of migrants to the economies of their host and home countries, and secondly to promote respect for their basic human rights.

In other words, the day is focused on those who are already migrants under the status quo.

Open Borders Day, on the other hand, is an occasion for us to step back from the status quo and imagine a radically different world. It’s a time for us to think not so much of the migrants in our midst, but rather, of the way our border regime shapes the world we live in, the moral argument for open borders, and how to get to a world with substantially freer migration.

To quite an extent, the two goals are complementary. International Migrants Day can be leveraged to highlight the “closed borders” nature of the status quo, and lay out the case for freer migration at large. As co-blogger Nathan cogently pointed out, those who have already migrated give a human face to migration, and make it easier for us to articulate and relate to the human effects of migration. But advocating for freedom of movement globally is not, and in my opinion should not be, the primary focus of International Migrants Day. To turn the day into (primarily) a discussion of open borders would be an appropriation of the occasion.

Similarly, Open Borders Day is a good occasion to remember the migrants in our midst, how their act of migration affects the world, and how they are treated. But Open Borders Day is more an occasion to focus on the “unseen” side of migration restrictions — the potential migrants who do not materialize as actual migrants — as opposed to the “seen” side, i.e., the existing migrants.

#2: The attention to migrants as a separate class of people

By its very name, International Migrants Day puts the spotlight on migrants as a separate class of people, even where arguing that these people should be given equal rights or similar treatment as natives. Historically, the day has been used to shed the spotlight on the deaths of people when attempting border crossings, and (claims about) bad treatment that migrants receive in their host countries. See, for instance, Amnesty International’s coverage of the day.

Open Borders Day, on the other hand, is an occasion to ponder a world where migration becomes less remarkable — where individuals’ acts of migration, while doubtless significant to them as individuals, are not treated as statements of moral or political significance. A world with open borders is one where international migration is just as free as intranational migration — constrained obviously by the usual factors that constrain people’s decisions to move, but with no authority to whom one’s act of movement need be justified. Properly understood, support for open borders doesn’t even involve having any particularly favorable view of migrants — though a positive view of migrants and potential migrants would doubtless make it easier to embrace open borders.

Of course, empirically understanding the effects of open borders requires thinking about the myriad selection effects that operate on migrants, both under the status quo and under open borders. But this is true of any empirical analysis, including the empirical analysis of migration between cities in the US.

#3: The focus on migrants, territorialism, and the overlooking of quantity issues

While there is no one single meaning to the concept of true open borders, a true open borders solution would likely involve no de jure or de facto legal restrictions on movement across political jurisdictions. Open borders advocates are, however, quite interested in partial approaches, that we have discussed under the headers of keyhole solutions and slippery slopes, where migration is significantly liberalized but either the act of migration itself or the package of rights and benefits enjoyed by migrants is constrained in important ways. Open borders advocates have mixed opinions on the desirability of keyhole solutions — co-blogger Nathan Smith endorses his DRITI scheme despite conceding its dark side, whereas co-blogger Paul Crider argues against keyhole regimes.

Some of the keyhole solutions to open borders, including guest worker programs such as those implemented in Singapore and the UAE, allow for dramatic increases in migration levels while being quite restrictive of migrant rights. This is not a coincidence: as Martin Ruhs observed in his book The Price of Rights and in conversation with GiveWell, migrant-receiving countries often make trade-offs between the “rights” that migrants have and the amount of migration they’ll allow. Co-blogger Michael Carey made a similar point here.

Thus, it’s often the case that an emphasis on migrant rights can endanger particular types of expansion of migration, and indeed, historically, immigrant rights activists are not quite friends of open borders. Being pro-migrant also fits in with ideas of territorialism and local inequality aversion, that focus specifically on the situation within particular geographic and jurisdictional boundaries. This can lead to apparent compositional effects paradoxes where people favor forbidding poor people from moving to countries where they can get richer because that lowers the average income in both sending and receiving country, even if no individual is worse off. This is why International Migrants Day can receive official (albeit in many ways hypocritical) support from governments in a way that Open Borders Day just can’t. For instance, the US Department of State celebates International Migrants Day:

On International Migrants Day we recognize the millions of people around the world who cross borders in search of a better life and we celebrate their contributions. But this year it is also a day to mourn the thousands whose journeys began in desperation and hope but ended in death.

This year, nearly 5,000 migrants lost their lives, crossing parched deserts, remote mountains, and treacherous seas – twice as many as last year. Deaths at sea surged as record numbers attempted to make it from North Africa to Europe. More than 3,000 migrants drowned when overcrowded, unseaworthy boats capsized or sank in the Mediterranean Sea. The danger is not going away. Poverty, hunger, and brutal wars like the one raging in Syria will continue to drive the exodus. Globally, more people are now forcibly displaced than at any other time since World War II. There are no simple solutions. Opportunities for safe, legal, and orderly migration are limited. The sordid business of human smuggling and trafficking is flourishing – and becoming more institutionalized and profitable. Responding to irregular migration may be politically and logistically difficult, and even migrants traveling legally may face harassment, discrimination, and abuse. But our priority is and must be saving lives.

The United States works bilaterally and multilaterally with the international community to make migration safer and the control of borders more humane. When unprecedented numbers of unaccompanied children risked their lives traveling from Central America to the United States this year, we began new initiatives with Central American governments to address the root causes of this challenge, publicize the hazards, strengthen protection programs, and create safe, legal alternatives for children seeking to join their parents in the United States. Hardship and hopelessness prompt far too many people to forsake their homes and venture into harm’s way. As long as this is the case, migrants need our compassion. Their lives may depend on it.

(for more discussion of the quoted text, see this Open Borders Action Group post).

Now, admittedly, you may be an open borders advocate and still think that, on balance, an emphasis on migrant rights is more important than an emphasis on allowing more migration. But the interesting thing about much of the rhetoric surrounding migrant rights, which gets highlighted during International Migrants Day, is that the potential trade-off with quantity of migration permitted is not even acknowledged or considered. This is fine — advocates and activists for one particular issue are not required to consider the ramifications of endorsing their position on the advocacy prospects for a bunch of other issues. Many of them may be sympathetic to open borders but may simply see the treatment of existing migrants as a more pressing issue that deserves to be addressed first, before an effective movement to liberalize migration can be allowed to take root.

This difference in focus, and occasional conflict in goals, is the reason that keeping International Migrants Day and Open Borders Day separate is probably a good idea.

PS: This post expands on an Open Borders Action Group post.