Rohingya refugee family beg the Bangladeshi coast guard to not deport them

Closed borders kill people

Open borders advocates have long seized philosophical hypotheticals to argue that open borders would, quite literally, save lives. Restrictionists tend to jump through all kinds of hoops to argue that preventing someone from earning an honest living isn’t economically equivalent to robbing that person of some of their income — which, in extreme cases, can obviously cause death. But it isn’t hard, at all, to find cases where closing the borders quite literally kills people.

Historically, developed countries have welcomed political refugees, knowing that to turn someone away would likely lead to their death. We regret and condemn cases where the civilised world has failed to do this, such as when the 1940s US denied visas to European Jews (perhaps the most famous victim of American oppression here being Anne Frank). West Germany welcoming East German escapees or the US welcoming Vietnamese refugees come to mind; even today, the US near-automatically grants residency to Cuban refugees.

While reading an article in the New York Times today about the corner of the world where the borders of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran meet, all I could think about was the power of open borders to transform people’s lives. I don’t know many people who would find it appealing to live in Iran, yet there are literally people willing to run the risk of death just to get into Iran (over 2 million of them, by one estimate from the article). That’s the immense power of the place premium.

I don’t have extremely strong views on Iran, but after reading the article, I don’t think I had a very positive impression of the country — to put it mildly. The way it treats undocumented Afghan workers, literally murdering people for crossing a line someone drew on a map, is unconscionable. Yet almost everything about Iranian immigration policy, short of murdering immigrants, resembles immigration policy in almost every country of the world. What makes Iranian immigration policy barbaric, but US or European immigration policy civilised?

Something else to chew on: Australia’s policy of jailing immigrants has backfired, because Indonesians are willing to risk death on the open seas to immigrate to Australian jails. The place premium’s existence and power are undeniable: people risk life and limb to get into Iran. They risk life and limb to get into an Australian jail, because that’s still a better life than what they had before. If closing the borders isn’t equivalent to taking food away from a starving man, it’s pretty damn close — especially when you need to literally kill some people to keep the borders closed.

John Lee is an administrator of the Open Borders website. Liberal immigration laws are a personal passion for him. See all blog posts by John.


16 thoughts on “Closed borders kill people”

  1. Just a thought — Amartya Sen is known for doing a calculation of the number of “missing women” due to sex-selective abortions in India. Perhaps open borders advocates could consider a similar count of the death toll of immigration restrictions. There would be a lot to debate here, and I’m not sure if this kind of measurement would be feasible, so it’s just a thought.

    1. Since extra-legal immigration is, by definition, poorly documented, this would be an uphill battle I think. Still, what we do know about these incidents is horrifying. If someone is willing to die to move to another country, that’s a pretty strong indicator that we are doing something wrong by preventing them from doing so. How easy can it be for someone who calls themselves a human being to accept the “collateral damage” of closed borders that includes the countless people who have gone to a watery grave, died of thirst in the desert, or frozen to death clinging to airplane landing gear?

    2. The Cato Institute did this estimate of the cost in life-years and suffering of delay in economic reforms in India (could have been done for China too):

      [The numbers are not that credible to independent observers though, since Cato is a think tank with a predetermined libertarian bottom line, and slants everything in service to that. But the basic approach is sensible.]

      If one attributes almost all absolute poverty to closed borders, then could simply take estimates of the life expectancy cost of poverty and attribute them to closed borders.

      1. I’ve read that Cato study by Swami Iyer.

        I don’t think it would be appropriate to blame all deaths due to poverty on open borders, even if I personally think open borders would eliminate world poverty. I don’t know how an honest and credible estimate might be arrived at, but it would have to restrict attention to deaths due to things that could be very clearly and definitely avoided by migration.

  2. People tend to assume that governments have a legitimate right to control all entry into their territories, therefore there must be some means to this legitimate end that are adequate to the purpose and morally acceptable. The fact that all available means to restrict immigration are either inadequate to the purpose or morally unacceptable, usually both, should be our clue to revisit the end and realize that we never had any adequate reason to regard it as legitimate in the first place.

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