A Halloween Case for Open Borders

Halloween has long been my favorite holiday. I’m amazed more libertarians don’t share a similar love for the holiday – it is the closest equivalent we have to a free market holiday. Halloween teaches children about opportunity costs; trick or treating may be ‘free’ in monetary terms but every kid understands that there is still a cost in terms of time spent walking house to house. It also teaches children about the benefits of trade (i.e. trading the candy you don’t like for candy you do like), the benefits in capital investment (i.e. those with the best costumes get the most candy), and even the value of open borders.

When I was a small child in Los Angeles’ Koreatown I would be dressed in my costume since the early morning and ready to go trick or treating as soon as possible. After all every minute spent idle meant less potential candy! When nightfall came though I would not be trick or treating in my native Koreatown, I’d be making the trek to the city’s richer neighborhoods in the west side. Residents of Koreatown weren’t stingy when it came to giving out candy, but there was a high place premium in the other neighborhoods. The residents of the west side, and other rich neighborhoods, gave out king-sized candy bars for the same work that I would perform in Koreatown.

These neighborhoods, with well-lit streets, calm traffic and several houses huddled together, were also better suited to trick or treating than my own neighborhood’s high rise apartment complexes, congested traffic, and poor pedestrian infrastructure. Not only were the rewards for trick or treating higher in these richer neighborhoods, but the costs were also lower. I wasn’t the only Angeleno who migrated neighborhoods for Halloween – the streets overflowed with families from across the metropolitan area.
To my knowledge no nativist movement has ever sprang up to try to discourage any of this. Local children have not formed a trick or treater union and demanded that no candy be given to ‘migrant’ trick or treaters. The homeowners in these neighborhoods have not refused to give candy to these migrant trick or treaters. And why should they?

These migrant trick or treaters clearly benefit from their temporary migration; they get more candy than they would have otherwise. However the homeowners and local children benefit as well. The fun of Halloween isn’t solely about getting as much candy as possible – there is also a degree of fun to be had in seeing everyone else dressed up. It is also, in the case of the homeowner who spent time in decorating their house for the festivities, a chance to be praised on how great one’s house looks. Halloween is very much a social holiday. Allowing migrant trick or treaters to enter their neighborhood has allowed homeowners and local children alike to greater enjoy Halloween than if they erected a border and shooed away outsiders for the night.

It would of course be absurd for a neighborhood to erect a border for a single night, but other means could be used to exclude migrant trick or treaters if that was desired. Local schools could give children badges to be worn on Halloween to help homeowners discriminate against migrant trick or treaters. The fact that we don’t see a serious attempt to separate local and migrant trick or treaters is a sign that all parties understand that they benefit from open borders for Halloween.

It would be nice if the same could be said about open borders in general. All the same I am glad that we have such a sweet holiday to help us make the case in favor of open borders.

What Open Borders Can Learn from the Abolition of Slavery

I occasionally hear people linking gay marriage and open borders. Thus, Jose Antonio Vargas (whom I wrote about here and heresays:

We are fighting for more than immigration reform. We are fighting for the dignity of people and liberation. More than anything Define American is trying to change media and culture. Again, LGBT rights would not have happened without culture shifting.

And Charles Kenny, in “Why Immigration is the New Gay Marriage,” writes:

The evolution of public attitudes toward gay marriage—which a majority of Americans now support—demonstrates that cultural shifts can be dramatic and rapid when circumstances are right. Perhaps U.S. citizens will start realizing that more people aspiring to become Americans is no threat to the institutions of America, just as they have come to accept that more people wanting to get married—some to people of the same sex—is no threat to the institution of marriage.

I’ll explain in a follow-up post why I don’t think open borders can expect to get much benefit from riding the coattails of, or emulating, the gay marriage movement. First, I want to describe the historical movement that open borders does resemble, and which it should emulate, namely: the movement to abolish slavery.

An excellent short history of the abolition of slavery, in Chapter 5 of his book For the Glory of God by sociologist Rodney Stark, which correctly treats it as part of the history of Christian social justice, begins with a sad history of this deplorable institution, which “has… been a nearly universal feature of ‘civilization’ [and] was also common in a number of ‘aboriginal’ societies that were sufficiently affluent to afford it– for example, slavery was very prevalent among the Northwest Indians,” and which, in fact, before the advent of Christian social justice, essentially occurred wherever “the average person can produce sufficient surplus that it becomes profitable for someone to own him or her” (Stark, p. 292-293). Stark describes slavery among the Northwest Coast Indians; in classical Greece and Rome; in the Muslim world; in black Africa long before the Atlantic slave trade; and in the New World in modern times. Stark pays less attention to China– space is limited, after all– but slavery also existed there.

The Bible doesn’t condemn slavery, though the Mosaic law does greatly ameliorate it:

Although Jews were prohibited from enslaving their fellow Jews, and their slaves therefore came from among the “heathen,” there were still severe limits on their treatment. Death was decreed for any Jewish master who killed a slave. The Torah admonished that freedom was to be awarded any slave as compensation for suffering acts of violence: “And if a man smite the eye of his servant, or the eye of his maid, that it perish; he shall go free for his eye’s sake. And if he smite out his manservant’s tooth, or his maidservant’s tooth; he shall let him go free for his tooth’s sake” (Exodus 21:26-27). Hebrew law held that children of slaves must not be parted from their parents, nor a wife from her husband. Moreover, in Deuteronomy 23:15-16 Jews were admonished not to return escaped slaves: “Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escape from his master unto thee: he shall dwell with thee, even among you… thou shalt not oppress him.” (Stark, p. 328)

Is it embarrassing that God condones slavery in the Mosaic Law? In such cases, one must be careful not to kick away the ladder by which we ascended. Christians believe that God is trying to redeem fallen mankind. That sometimes means meeting fallen man where he is at a given time, improving him by small steps, and condoning much that is defective with respect to loftier ethical standards that he may attain later. Compared to the brutal exploitation of slaves by so many other civilizations, slavery as prescribed in the Mosaic law is humane. Jesus later told the Pharisees that Moses had permitted men to divorce their wives “because of the hardness of your hearts” (Matthew 19:8), and I think (and more importantly, Christians have long held) that the same principle applies to much of the Mosaic law. It was a kind of compromise between ethical perfection and human weakness. The subsequent history of the Jews shows how little they were able even to live up to this limited standard. But in the teachings of Jesus the fullness of ethical perfection was revealed, and this rendered obsolete some of the rituals and minor rules, and especially the imperfections and compromises, of the Mosaic law.

Yet even in the New Testament, slaves are told to obey their masters by both St. Peter– see 1 Peter 2:18— and St. Paul– see Ephesians 6:5 and Colossians 3:22. I don’t find these passages troubling, because I see them as instances of Jesus’s teaching to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39) and, in general, to submit to coercion and even give more than what is demanded: “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles” (Matthew 5:41). After all, if we ought to serve our fellow men, then why should it be an unmitigated evil to be legally bound to serve one of our fellow men? More troubling, possibly, is that in advising the Ephesians, St. Paul does not command Christian masters to manumit their slaves, saying only “And masters, do the same things [i.e., render sincere service] to them [i.e., to your slaves], and give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him” (Ephesians 6:9). Certainly for masters to serve their slaves and to stop threatening them is a step in the right direction, but how can any kind of slavery, even an ameliorated form, be compatible with the Gospel of love?

I would offer three defenses of St. Paul here. First, the apostles weren’t trying to make a secular political revolution, for which they didn’t have the strength, but to save souls, to work a moral transformation from within. Had they attempted to launch a revolution against slavery, the Roman Empire would have crushed them. Even semi-public exhortations to manumission in letters to churches might have been dangerous. Second, this is another case of God meeting us where we are, and not giving us moral standards we’re not yet ready to live by. What would masters in the early Ephesian church have done, had St. Paul commanded them to manumit all their slaves? Let’s assume it would have been good for their souls as well as their slaves if they had obeyed. But, perhaps they would not have obeyed, but left the church instead. Would that justify Paul in limiting his exhortations to good treatment rather than manumission? I think so. Third, what happens to a manumitted slave? Don’t think of the ancient Roman Empire as a modern capitalist economy where any random person can find a job and support himself. A typical slave would probably have trouble making it on his or her own. To urge masters to manumit their slaves into isolation and destitution might have been no mercy. The slaveless society was a social model yet to be developed.

Theologian David Bentley Hart describes (in his book Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies, pp. 176ff.) the attitudes of the early Church fathers towards slavery…

The attitudes of many of the fathers of the church toward slavery ranged from (at best) resigned acceptance to (at worst) a kind of prudential approval. All of them regarded slavery as a mark of sin, of course, and all could take some comfort in the knowledge that, at the restoration of creation in the Kingdom of God, it would vanish altogether. They even understood that this expectation necessarily involved certain moral implications for the present. But, for most of them, the best that could be hoped for within a fallen world (apart from certain legal reforms) was a spirit of charity, gentleness, and familial regard on the part of masters and a spirit of longsuffering on the part of servants. Basil of Caesarea found it necessary to defend the subjection of some men to others, on the grounds that not all are capable of governing themselves wisely and virtuously. John Chrysostom dreamed of a perfect (probably eschatological) society in which none would rule over another, celebrated the extension of legal rights and protections to slaves, and fulminated against Christian masters who would dare to humiliate or beat their slaves. Augustine, with his darker, colder, more brutal vision of the fallen world, disliked slavery but did not think it wise always to spare the rod, at least not when the welfare of the soul should take precedence over the welfare of the flesh. Each of them knew that slavery was essentially a damnable thing– which in itself was a considerable advance in moral intelligence over the ethos of pagan antiquity– but damnation, after all, is reserved for the end of time; none of them found it possible to convert that eschatological certainty into a program for the present… Given the inherently restive quality of the human moral imagination, it is only natural that certain of the moral values of the pagan past should have lingered on so long into the Christian era, just as any number of Christian moral values continue today to enjoy a tacit and largely unexamined authority in minds and cultures that no longer believe the Christian story.

It is in this context that a certain stunning insight occurred to a certain 4th-century theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, to whom, as far as I can tell, the abolition of slavery may be traced.

And yet– confusingly enough for any conventional calculation of history probability– there is Gregory of Nyssa, Basil’s younger and more brilliant brother, who sounded a very different note, one that almost seems to have issued from some altogether different frame of reality. At least, one searches in vain through the literary remains of antiquity– pagan, Jewish, or Christian– for any other document remotely comparable in tone or content to Gregory’s fourth sermon on the book of Ecclesiastes, which he preached during Lent in 379, and which comprises a long passage unequivocally and indignantly condemning slavery as an institution. That is to say, in this sermon Gregory does not simply treat slavery as an extravagance in which Christians ought not to indulge beyond the dictates of necessity, nor does he confine himself to denouncing the injustices and cruelties of which slaveholders are frequently guilty. These things one would naturally expect, since moral admonitions and exhortations to repentance are part of the standard Lenten repertoire of any competent homilist. Moreover, ever since 321, when Constantine had granted the churches the power of legally certifying manumissions (the power of manumissio in ecclesia), propertied Christians had often taken Easter as an occasion for emancipating slaves, and Gregory was no doubt hoping to encourage his parishioners to follow the custom. But if all he had wanted to do was recommend manumission as a spiritual hygiene or as a gesture of benevolence, he could have done so quite (and perhaps more) effectively by using a considerably more temperate tone than one actually finds in his sermon. For there he directs his anger not at the abuse of slavery but at its use; he reproaches his parishioners not for mistreating their slaves but for daring to imagine that they have the right to own other human beings in the first place.

One cannot overemphasize this distinction. On occasion, scholars who have attempted to make this sermon conform to their expectations of fourth century rhetoric have tried to read it as belonging to some standard type of penitential oration, perhaps rather more hyperbolic in some of its language but ultimately intended to do no more than impress the consciences of its hearers with the need for humility… [But] Gregory’s language in the sermon is simply too unambiguous to be read as anything other than what it is. He leaves no room for Christian slaveholders to console themselves with the thought that they, at any rate, are merciful masters, generous enough to liberate the occasional worthy servant but wise enough to know when they must continue to exercise stewardship over less responsible souls. He certainly could have done just this; he begins his diatribe (which is not too strong a word) with a brief exegetical excursus on a single, rather unexpectional verse, Eccesiastes 2:7 (“I got me male and female slaves, and had my home-born slaves as well”); a text that would seem to invite only a few bracing imprecations against luxuriance and sloth, and nothing more. As he warms to his theme, however, Gregory goes well beyond this…

Continue reading “What Open Borders Can Learn from the Abolition of Slavery” »

Ebola is utterly irrelevant. Open the borders.

The Ebola crisis in West Africa has well and truly frightened the citizens of the world, in vast disproportion to the risk it actually poses to most people outside a relatively small region of Africa. People seem to think Ebola makes a slam dunk case against open borders. But Ebola is actually virtually irrelevant to the question of whether we should have open borders.

The Ebola-/disease-argument for closing — whether selectively or in broad indiscriminate strokes — the borders generally runs as follows:

  1. There is a dangerous disease
  2. This disease is transmitted from person to person
  3. Some foreign people have this disease
  4. Preventing these disease-bearing people from entering our country would eliminate the risk of them transmitting this disease to us
  5. Therefore it would be justified to ban at least some foreign people from entering our country

Now, I think this argument is as a general rule logically sound. It does omit some proper elements of feasibility assessment, risk sizing, and cost-benefit analysis by assuming the worst case scenario in some cases (e.g., that allowing even one foreign person with the disease to enter would be an immense danger) and assuming the best case scenario in others (e.g., that a travel ban would be perfectly implementable and would completely halt the spread of the disease).

It turns out that when you assess the empirical evidence, there’s zero proof that a travel ban would actually halt the spread of Ebola. And in any case, the risk of Ebola becoming widespread in the developed world is exceedingly small — Ebola is a disease that is relatively easy to stop in its tracks when you have a functioning healthcare system (Nigeria has been spectacularly successful at combatting Ebola, and it wasn’t just lucky).

But let’s say that for whatever reason, a travel ban of some kind would contribute to stopping Ebola, or otherwise pass some reasonable cost-benefit analysis. I’d be willing to consider a travel ban in such a scenario. Does this make me a hypocrite for advocating open borders? Does this mean that I actually oppose open borders? I obviously don’t think so.

The “Ebola gotcha” is not any kind of “gotcha” at all. It only appears to be such a trump card if you don’t understand what open borders is in the first place. Of course Ebola is a gotcha argument for those who advocate allowing anyone to go anywhere, irrespective of the actual circumstance. That’s a gotcha argument against open borders in the same way that child porn is a gotcha argument against freedom of the press. After all, you support the prosecution of child pornographers, don’t you? Well, you obviously oppose freedom of speech then.

In human society, every right and freedom is balanced against other liberties. Open borders refers to freedom of human movement — a freedom that must be balanced just like any other. You can dream of a million cases where someone should have their freedom of movement circumscribed — I’ll likely agree with you on most if not every single one of them.

The point though is that freedom of movement is a right which belongs to every human being — it is not a right which can be arbitrarily circumscribed. Restrict the movement of people carrying dangerous diseases? I’m all for that. Put up walls against armed invaders? Seems like a decent idea. The point is that none of these have anything more than the vaguest connection to nationality. You don’t have to be a foreigner to decide to be a drug runner, a terrorist, or a contagious disease-carrier. You just have to be human.

So if you want to ban people with contagious diseases from travelling, that can certainly be justified — but the point is that to achieve its goals, this ban would have to be blind to nationality. If your concern is Ebola, it makes no sense to ban foreigners from entering your country, while still allowing your citizens carte blanche to come and go. That would be the equivalent of banning Facebook because you’ve noticed an uptick in child porn on the internet.

This is why even most of the hysterical proposals for an Ebola-based travel ban actually are arguably consistent with an open borders philosophy: to the extent that they target travellers from particularly Ebola-stricken areas, irrespective of citizenship, they are in theory justifiable. It is not in principle different from applying a different set of procedures to travellers from regions where, say, yellow fever is endemic. The point is that these restrictions are tied to a concrete and articulable reason — you don’t get magically exempted from them just because of your citizenship.

The way our countries’ immigration laws single out non-citizens for arbitrary discrimination and persecution which we would never subject citizens to is what makes them so objectionable. It’s one thing to temporarily restrict travel from disease-stricken regions — e.g., subject travellers from those areas to additional screening. It’s a completely different thing to accept “Ebola” as a reason to ban some foreigners from entering purely because of their nationality, even as we would allow an identical citizen in their shoes free entry.

The “argument from disease” or “argument from armed invasion” against open borders is a complete red herring because it makes up a strawman definition of open borders. Ebola is not a reason to oppose open borders; it’s about as relevant to freedom of movement as child pornography is to freedom of speech. There will always be contagious disease and there will always be sick people perpetrating violence against innocents. To the extent possible, our governments should contain the spread of disease and punish violent criminals. This is not an excuse for our governments to visit injustice upon innocents.

An open borders regime has nothing to do with letting Ebola run rampant. A responsible open borders regime would adopt travel policies that limit the spread of Ebola to the extent possible, while minimising the impact on the mobility of innocent people who have had nothing to do with the virus — irrespective of those people’s nationality.

Sadly, the connection between “foreignness” and disease is a strong one in our minds. Take this recent story for example:

…the flight attendants surrounded the [African] woman and asked her to leave the plane (and threatened to call the airport police if she wouldn’t get off the plane)…

Let’s just be clear about some things about this woman: she was 34, felt she quite possibly could be pregnant, and lived in Boston. She’d been to Nigeria back at the beginning of the year, but came back in fine health. She felt a little nauseated; that’s it. Her eyes weren’t bleeding, she wasn’t spraying revolting fluids out of anything, she was simply a young woman trying to get home.

I was sitting next to a woman who worked at the UNC School of Public Health, who was traveling on the plane with a bunch of other colleagues who knew something about diseases and epidemics. And, interestingly, one of them, an older white man, mentioned he’d been to Liberia recently, and was technically much more of a potential ebola risk than the woman. Nobody asked him to leave the plane.

The well-intended but still harsh and ignorant prejudice these flight attendants exhibited is the exact sort of bigoted “logic” behind the Ebola-motivated arguments for closing borders. If Ebola is your true concern, then you would target those who actually pose the risk of Ebola, irrespective of their nationality.

Ebola is not a gotcha argument against freedom of movement for the same reasons that terrorism is not a gotcha argument against freedom of speech. If you are carrying a dangerous disease, or if you are engaged in armed violence against others, it doesn’t matter which country you’re a citizen of — your freedom of movement can and will be curbed. Open borders is simply about guaranteeing the inverse. If you don’t present a clear threat to anyone else, then no matter where you hail from, it is an abominable injustice for our governments to prevent you from travelling in peace.

Junk the international refugee system, and open the borders

Refugee and asylum are hot topics these days, with conflict across the world and criminal violence often forcing people to set off for distant lands in search of a better life. It seems to me that most people arguing this issue operate under two misapprehensions regarding how refugee law works:

  1. They believe that refugees don’t have very particular or special rights to migrate under the law — refugees crossing a border without submitting to inspection is unlawful, and countries don’t have special obligations to accept refugees who set foot on their territory.
  2. They believe that international and domestic law adequately protects the rights of refugees, and that most of the problems to do with refugee and asylum-seeker rights originate from governments failing to adhere to their legal obligations, rather than any fundamental failing of refugee law.

Migrants prepare to cast off the beach at Shimbiro, Somalia, for a perilous journey across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen and beyond. Photo: Alixandra Fazina/Noor
Migrants prepare to cast off the beach at Shimbiro, Somalia, for a perilous journey across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen and beyond.
Photo: Alixandra Fazina/Noor, used in the New Statesman article From Africa to Kent: following in the footsteps of migrants

Remarkably, I’ve encountered people who hold both views. Usually adherents of #1 are people who don’t know much about refugee law, and/or anti-immigration restrictionists, while adherents of #2 are generally mainstream left liberals. But there are certainly some people who appear to hold both sets of beliefs (possibly because they completely misunderstand both how refugee law works and the actual situation refugees face).

It’s actually pretty easy to debunk belief #1 — international law, and the domestic law of most developed countries (the US included) gives anyone fleeing persecution or torture the right to seek and obtain asylum outside their home country, becoming a refugee. You need to do nothing special to enter another country. If you have a legitimate refugee claim, crossing the border without initially obtaining any papers or passing any government inspection is completely legal. (If you think this doesn’t make sense, then consider that it wouldn’t make sense to prevent people from fleeing the Holocaust because their papers at the time weren’t in order.)

After you’ve left your home country and entered the country you’d like to seek asylum in, you must begin the formal process of obtaining refugee status — i.e., you have to start filling out forms and making your case for asylum. In most cases, this means a judge or other government official has to formally rule that you are a legitimate refugee. If they do, then you’re typically scot free and become a legal immigrant under the country’s immigration laws. If the judge rules you’re not a legitimate refugee — maybe the violence you fled wasn’t the right kind of violence — then you’ll be sent home.

Sometimes, you might not want to resettle permanently in the country you initially flee to. In some cases, governments, charities, and/or international bodies will help you migrate elsewhere under a formal refugee resettlement programme. This is usually centrally managed or planned by some large government or intergovernment bureaucracy.

Most countries are reluctant to help refugees resettle; the United Kingdom for example has said it will only resettle 500 refugees from Syria — a country beset by a civil war which has displaced millions of innocents. (“Displaced” of course is an euphemism for “forced millions to leave their home under the threat of murder, rape, or torture”.) As a result, the queues for resettlement are long and few refugees have any serious prospect for being resettled elsewhere — which is why most Syrian refugees are trapped in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon.

What I’ve just described is not fanciful or imagined — it’s the international refugee system as codified in international law and the domestic law of many countries. The “illegals” who show up in your waters on rickety boats or cross the desert straddling your border are, in many cases, people with legitimate asylum claims — which makes what they’re doing completely legal. They are no more wrong than a Jew fleeing the Holocaust would have been in trying to get to your country.

Now, it seems funky that I think the belief #2 I described is wrong. This system of refugee management has its flaws like any human creation, but it certainly sounds like it would, if implemented properly and in good faith, enable refugees to migrate away from persecution and violence. The line it draws between refugees and those seeking to migrate for other reasons is perhaps arbitrary, but not unreasonable on the face of it — if we had to pick and choose only one type of migrant for some reason, most of us would probably agree we ought to welcome the person fleeing murder.

But in the real world, it turns out that figuring out which side of this arbitrary line one is on can be difficult. It’s actually unclear, for example, whether child migrants to the US fleeing gang violence in El Salvador (“fleeing gang violence” here being an euphemism for “running away from people who’ve threatened to rape and then kill them”) actually legally qualify for refugee status. Even if they don’t, they arguably qualify for other protective status of some kind offered by US immigration law, but this is hardly a well-settled legal issue.

Some refugee advocates think the US government should offer special parole to these Latin American migrants, since they don’t fit any typical legal category of refugee. Others, like the UN and even the president of Honduras, argue that although they might not meet the technical definition of refugee, these people certainly fit the spirit and intention of refugee law, and should be classified as such.

Putting aside the thorny issue of child asylum-seekers for the moment, let’s reflect on the ludicrousness of the fact that most countries will not permit anyone claiming refugee status to actually legally travel there. If you enter irregularly, you can fully assert your legal right to stay — but it is illegal for you to travel in order to assert this legal right of asylum!

Say you want to fly from Guatemala to the US, or from Syria to the US, you need a visa. If you can’t prove you have the legal right to travel to the US, no airline or shipping company will issue you a ticket. Since almost all refugees can’t prove they have this right — thanks to the legal system requiring you to be present on the country’s territory to assert your asylum claim — almost all refugees and asylum-seekers are compelled to enter via irregular means, and seek out the aid of smugglers.

The refugees or migrants undertaking an arduous and dangerous journey from Somalia to Italy or Guatemala to the US do so not because they are criminals who have to resort to illegal means by virtue of their own evil — they do so because there is no legal way for them to travel to the US. Some refugees and asylum-seekers resort to other types of crime to travel in search of safety — I have heard stories of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka flying to Western countries by faking fraudulent tourist or immigrant visas in their passports. After boarding their flight using this false documentation, they destroy the fraudulent documents, and claim asylum upon landing. This sort of fraud or human smuggling is just the perfectly-foreseeable and indefensible outcome of a legal system which criminalises the ordinary travel of people who already have the legal right to migrate.

Worse still, any good faith implementation of this legal system still must grapple with the problem of differentiating legitimate refugees from mere “economic migrants” or people seeking to reunite with family. Since international refugee law is silent about the rights of non-refugee migrants, even countries following this legal system in good faith feel free to persecute economic migrants. So if, say, the US government takes measures to deter Latin Americans from coming, this will inevitably discourage not just economic migrants. This will also discourage those who already have the legal right to migrate from exercising those legal rights accorded to them under US and international law. And there’s nothing wrong with this under refugee law, because state violence and coercion of economic migrants is perfectly fine.

To put the implications here in more concrete terms, ostensibly civilised developed countries really do try hard to intercept migrants — almost indiscriminately — before they reach their soil. If you can keep a potential asylum-seeker from touching land, then you can prevent them from ever asserting an asylum claim in the first place — even if they would be completely entitled to do so under your country’s laws. The international refugee system creates a perverse incentive to try very hard to keep refugees from coming, by offering this as a legal channel to stop them. And while states can certainly go overboard in taking harsh measures here, virtually all of them can find some ostensibly good-faith justification for doing so. After all, they aren’t intercepting these migrants for the sake of punishing refugees — they just want to stop economic migration!

This is exactly why Australia tries very hard, for example, to intercept migrants before they reach its waters, and to “process” any asylum claims offshore in countries like Nauru. While what they are doing might run afoul of the spirit of the law, Australia claims to be abiding by the exact letter of international and domestic refugee law. Similarly, the coast guards of European states like Greece and Italy often work to intercept migrants’ boats before they enter their waters — and if these boats do enter their waters, it is not unheard of for the coast guard to actually tow them back out. Such tows or “pushbacks” are actually illegal under refugee law, but there is nothing to prevent the coast guard from doing this, and there’s a very strong incentive to keep these people from touching land and asserting any claims of asylum.

Finally, the international refugee system in at least one important respect appears to be a figleaf for rich countries to disguise how they foist the responsibility for dealing with refugees onto poorer countries. Consider the present Syrian refugee crisis: millions of Syrians have been forced to flee their homes. Many of them live in camps in Syria. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, more have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, or Jordan, and become refugees there.

Under refugee law, these people are now trapped in the country they’ve initially claimed asylum in. The governments of Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan aren’t trying to gas them to death like Bashar Assad is, nor are they trying to oppress them in the way the Islamic State is presently doing in parts of Iraq and Syria. So these people have no legal way to leave the countries they initially flee to — and Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan just have to deal with these populations.

In theory, the UN and various governments would work together to help resettle these refugees elsewhere in the world, so they don’t just burden the countries immediately next to the calamity that caused them to flee. In practice, rich countries like the UK agree to take a couple hundred refugees and call it a day.

People claim that taking refugees would overwhelm their countries. People from the West and other richer countries (like my own, Malaysia) can give all sorts of great excuses for why they cannot take in more than a few hundred refugees. But Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon had no choice but to take in hundreds of thousands of refugees — this was and is their obligation under international law. Short of the conflict ending, there is no way for these migrants to leave. If a refugee living in Jordan or Turkey tries to migrate elsewhere, they can be legally rejected and treated as a mere “illegal” — they’re just “economic migrants”, not real “refugees”, since the governments of Jordan and Turkey don’t actually try to kill these people.

I won’t argue that these countries are perfect, or that they’ve been perfectly able to cope with these inflows, but it’s plain as day that these refugee flows have not caused a humanitarian disaster to befall the nationals of these countries. I don’t see masses of Turks, Jordanians, or Lebanese starving or going without shelter because of resources diverted to caring for Syrian refugees. If these poor and relatively small countries can cope with hundreds of thousands of refugees, it is frankly absurd that far richer and larger countries like Australia, Canada, the US, or the UK — or even Malaysia — can only cope with taking in a few hundred. Yet this absurdity is exactly what the international refugee system would recommend.

The international refugee system was meant to protect the rights of refugees to seek refuge from violence. Yet the outcome has been something quite plainly different. People seeking asylum from countries like Syria or Afghanistan who are caught by Australia and “processed” offshore live in detention camps where the conditions are so terrible that they often wish they’d never come — which is likely the desired effect from the Australian government’s point of view. Children fleeing threats of rape or murder from places like Honduras are now at risk of being deported back to face their assailants, simply because they might not technically be refugees. Governments pursue harsh measures to deter channels for migration, in the name of “legitimately” excluding economic migrants, even if these harsh measures force legitimate refugees to undertake arduous and dangerous journeys which leave them at the mercy of illicit smugglers and violent criminals.

Now, of course, you could argue that it’s only “fair” to take some measures to deter economic migration, even if harming a few refugees is the resulting collateral damage. Refugee advocate Sonia Nazario vehemently demands the deportation of economic migrants. The operative assumption seems to be that these migrants aren’t fleeing “real” danger or suffering.

I’ll let journalist Stephan Faris field this one, from his book Homelands: The Case for Open Immigration:

Life expectancy in [Nigeria] is 52 years, the 17th lowest in the world, compared with 79 years in the United States and 83 years in Italy. Out of every eight children born in the country, one dies before his or her fifth birthday. Only three out of every five adults are able to read and write. The chance a woman will die as a result of childbirth is better than 1 in 30.

If those numbers were a result of government persecution—if a state were intentionally targeting a specific ethnic group, cutting thirty years off the lives of its members, depriving 40 percent of them of an education, and poisoning and killing one child in eight and one mother in thirty—there would be little question that those who managed to escape were deserving of safety and protection.

And yet, if a Nigerian requests asylum in Europe or the United States, he or she faces an uphill battle. For the vast majority of Nigeria’s young and able, the legal routes of travel to safety and a better life, to places where women can give birth without worrying about dying or losing a child, have been securely barred.

The modern refugee system at its heart is incapable of assisting many fleeing truly horrific danger and suffering.

If a murderous dictator wants to murder your child, and you’re willing to pay thousands of dollars to smugglers who specialise in human trafficking via life-threatening desert or sea routes so your child can make it to Western soil, you might be able to make a claim of asylum and save his or her life.

But if your child dies from diarrhea because his parents were forced to live in a country with terrible health infrastructure and a poor medical system, then that’s totally fair. Any attempt you might have made to bring him to a country where doctors actually know how to treat diarrhea would have been mere “economic migration” — an unlawful act!

Development economist Lant Pritchett captures the absurdity well in his book Let Their People Come:

Amartya Sen has popularized the notion of “missing women” in Asia due to differential death rates and (increasingly) sex-selective abortion. Because the child mortality rate in India is about 100 per 1,000 while it is 8 per 1,000 in the United States, this implies that 92 per 1,000 more Indian children than U.S. children die before age five. This means there are 2.2 million missing Indian children each year. However, while the “missing women” is a standard refrain, I have never heard the term “missing Indians” to describe the results of the child mortality differentials between the rich world and India.

Almost as a perfect reductio ad absurdum, Nicolas Kristof in the New York Times has compared the low mortality rates in the United States to the even lower mortality rates in Singapore to discuss the issue of less than 20,000 missing Americans — with no mention of the issue that is smaller by orders of magnitude than the missing people in any poor country.

Nothing about the modern refugee system makes sense. The way I see it, we have two choices. Either we can accept that, as much as we wish otherwise, we are little better than the governments of World War II who chose to let people fleeing violence die and suffer, in the name of “national defence” and “sovereign borders”. Or we can accept that every human being has the right to pursue a better life, as long as they are willing to pay the price to get there — the price of their ticket, and the price of lodging.

Trying to arbitrarily redefine migration as a privilege accessible only to “legitimate” refugees is no way to protect human rights. Drawing this arbitrary line is merely an excuse for tolerating government oppression of innocent migrants, even the actual refugees among them. If we really care about human rights and the rights of refugees, then we ought to just junk the international refugee system — and open the borders.

Related reading

You might be interested in all our blog posts tagged refugees.

Here are a few posts in particular that might interest you:

A Future Nobel Peace Prize for Open Borders: The Case?

The Nobel Peace Prize was recently awarded to two individuals working to improve the lives of children in South Asia. The winners are Malala Yousafzai, a teenage girl from Pakistan who is an advocate for girls’ education, and Kailash Satyarthi  of India, who has worked against child slavery in his country.

These are undoubtably amazing individuals worthy of acclamation, including the Nobel Peace Prize, but if Open Borders: The Case plays a major role in achieving its objective of realizing universal open borders, it will be even more worthy. The magnitude of the improvement in the lives of people around the world under open borders would surpass the accomplishments of Ms. Yousafzai, Mr. Satyarthi, and other winners of the prize.

Let’s begin by examining the potential impact of open borders on the cause of eliminating child labor compared to the impact Mr. Satyarthi has had. Mr. Satyarthi’s organization has reportedly freed about 70,000 child laborers in India, which is impressive.  However, there are more than 150 million child laborers worldwide, so his accomplishments are dwarfed by the magnitude of the problem.

Open borders, on the other hand, offers a way to pull millions of child laborers out of their predicaments. Child labor appears to be largely a function of poverty.  The United Nations notes that “poverty emerges as the most compelling reason why children work. Poor households spend the bulk of their income on food and the income provided by working children is often critical to their survival.”  Open borders would allow these families to migrate to countries with more prosperous economies where the adults could earn enough to sustain the family, while well-funded educational systems could provide the children with an education. By enabling families to escape the conditions which lead to child labor, open borders may be the best way to transform the lives of a large portion of child laborers.

In the case of girls’ education, notwithstanding Ms. Yousafzai’s incredible story and worthy efforts, it is not clear how much of an increase in the number of girls receiving an education can be realized through her and others’ advocacy and charitable work. According to the Malala Fund, 66 million girls worldwide are not in school. The recently established Fund provides resources at the local level for girls’ education in developing countries. Hopefully over time it will have a great impact, but that remains to be seen. Open borders, by providing families in developing countries access to countries that provide education equally to both genders, would allow girls to quickly acquire schooling without waiting for changes to be made in their home countries. The increase in remittances through open borders could have a similar effect in home countries.(See my previous post on how open borders could benefit women more generally.)

Similarly, in the struggle against global poverty more generally, open borders would likely surpass the accomplishments of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winners Muhammad Yunus and his Grameen Bank. Mr. Yunus won the prize for developing micro-credit, involving loans to poor people in developing countries, “into an ever more important instrument in the struggle against poverty.”  However, as the BBC states, “the evidence for microcredit lifting people out of poverty remains highly contested.” While the BBC notes a report that found that 10 million Bangladeshis got out of poverty through microcredit over about a 20 year period, the poverty threshold was remarkably low: $1.25 a day.  Similarly, the New York Times reported that “most borrowers do not appear to be climbing out of poverty, and a sizable minority is getting trapped in a spiral of debt, according to studies and analysts.”

While the benefits of micro-credit are contested, open borders is potentially, in the words of Bryan Caplan, “the greatest remedy for poverty ever discovered.” One study suggests that under open borders, “there would be a 46% increase in wages for those who stayed in poor countries, and migrants to rich countries would see their wages rise by 157%.”  Another study suggests that open borders would increase world GDP by 50-150%, presumably with much of the increase flowing to migrants.  Migration helps migrants earn a higher income in developed countries than what they would earn in developing countries, even without a change of skills, and remittances also help.

Lant Pritchett makes a similar point when he compares microcredit and migration (as noted by Robert Guest):  “… as Mr. Pritchett points out, the average gain from a lifetime of microcredit in Bangladesh is about the same as the gain from eight weeks working in the United States.  After doing a quick calculation of the total benefit that Grameen Bank confers on its clients, he asks, mischievously: ‘If I get 3,000 Bangladeshi workers into the US, do I get the Nobel Peace Prize?'”

Open borders might also contribute to the “peace” part of the Peace Prize. Nathan Smith has argued that “open borders would facilitate world peace, by giving each nation a stake in the prosperity of other countries, where some of their own relatives live, by letting people from estranged nations meet on the territory of third countries and find out that they are not devils, and by reducing a bit the importance of just who controls what territory.”

If (hopefully when) open borders are realized, it certainly will have been the result of efforts by individuals and groups throughout the world, making assigning credit to one or two entities difficult. However, at this point in time, Open Borders: The Case is playing an important role as a repository of ideas for achieving open borders. If its work creates a chain reaction leading to open borders, it will be worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize.