Tag Archives: climate change

Will we migrate to danger?

Back in August I attended a conference on Market Adaptation to Climate Change hosted by Stanford’s Program on Energy and Sustainable Development (PESD) and the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC). The conference, as one might guess from the title, was focused primarily on climate change. However I found one paper in particular of great relevance to open borders.

In their working paper, Geography of Development: Evaluating Migration Restrictions and Coastal Flooding, Desmet et al. arrive at two key conclusions:

  • If migration restrictions remain then, in the long run, economic production will shift from the global north towards what is today considered the developing world (i.e. Africa and Asia). This is driven by the long term benefits of close proximity to other people, namely lowered transaction costs, which promote increases in technology and productivity. Consider the San Francisco Bay Area as an example; part of the reason why the region is so productive is because of the high concentration of high-skilled individuals. A computer engineer is several times more productive in the Bay Area, where he can quickly interact with his peers, than if he were working in a sparsely populated town in South Dakota.


  • If migration restrictions are liberalized then individuals will migrate to the global north in pursuit of higher standards of living, but this will ultimately place more individuals in danger of sea level rise. Current developed regions remain high in productivity, with an increase in productivity in a few of the currently developing regions.


Both findings are at odds to how Open Borders: The Case bloggers usually view the future.

One of the strongest cases for open borders is that it is a humanitarian way to promote productivity. Yet in this simulation the currently developing world catches up and overtakes the current developed world in productivity in the long run.  The case for open borders becomes one then not only of providing a short -term humanitarian way to improve the productivity of those in the developing world, but one to preserve the long term economic dominance of the currently developed world. Support for open borders needn’t be based on altruism – even nativists should support open borders in order to preserve the perceived prestige of their country.

Secondly the paper suggests that open borders would actually lead to more people being placed in danger’s path by allowing migration to the highly productive coastal regions. Silicon Valley, New York, and other world cities tend to be prone to flooding. When we’ve discussed climate change we have usually  taken the stance that open borders will alleviate any possible harms. See Nathan and Joel.

I still think that open borders would help address climate change. I do not disagree with Desmet et al. that open borders would lead to greater migration to coastal regions, but I doubt that human beings would allow themselves to drown. High productivity regions that expected to be in danger of being flooded by sea level rises will likely invest in public works (e.g. sea walls) or build on higher ground. Surely there must be countless people working to prevent the San Francisco Bay Area from sea level rises – if not I have just given readers a free start-up firm idea.

As Joel, an OB co-author, has pointed out, per capita infrastructure costs will also decrease as more migrants settle in coastal regions. Most adaptations to climate change, such as seawalls or large scale cooling centers,  become increasingly feasible as the number of people willing to pay increases.

Humanity has never lived in a static world – we’ve constantly been adapting to changes in culture, technology, and climate. It may come to pass that one day we will meet a challenge that we are unable to overcome, but I am generally optimistic about our future.

This paper, as most papers of its type, is highly speculative and for simplicity omits several variables. Nonetheless it serves as a helpful ‘What if?’ scenario.

We’ll likely have open borders before serious climate change mitigation

The climate change movement is not one that obviously parallels the open borders movement; it’s not a civil rights or social justice issue (except insofar as it might disproportionately harm the world’s poorest — but the same could be said for almost any noteworthy public policy issue) and it has far more clout and attention than migration. But there are three things that I think we have in common:

  1. Political leaders love to make grand statements about how they must and will act on these pressing issues
  2. Political leaders take no meaningful action to address the issue whatsoever (other than very marginal policy changes)
  3. This, in spite of reasonably strong agreement amongst experts in the field who have devoted their lives to the study of the issue that strong action is needed — and that strong action will have large impacts

Continue reading We’ll likely have open borders before serious climate change mitigation

Bangladesh and India: move towards open borders

As I’ve previously written, South-South migration — migration within and between poor countries — deserves attention in our understanding of global migration, and we can be inspired by scholars of migration and development who have worked hard on this. India is an important example: it is a large, fast-growing, but quite poor country (in per capita terms) surrounded by neighbors who are somewhat poorer in per capita terms and much smaller in size. I previously wrote part 1 of a two-part series on open borders within India and also looked at the existence of open borders between India and Nepal.

The topic of this post is more difficult: policy options for migration between Bangladesh and India. The lack of easily available public material on the subject, combined with my relative ignorance, make me an inappropriate candidate to delve into the relevant empirics and historical details. I’ve asked some others to do guest posts for the site on the subject, and these will hopefully materialize later this year. But, given that I consider the case for open borders to be universal, I should be able to provide an approximate contour of how I believe the case applies to India and Bangladesh. That’s what I try to do here.

“Chickensneckindia” by Ankur; Additions to original map by uploader. Licensed under CC-BY-SA from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chickensneckindia.jpg, used in the Wikipedia page Bangladesh–India border

Population and income differences

India’s population is about 1.21 billion and per capita GDP (PPP) estimates range from $4000 to $6000. Bangladesh has a population of about 157 million and per capita GDP (PPP) estimates range from $2100 to $3300. The estimates co-vary, i.e., the sources that estimate higher GDP (PPP) per capita for India estimate proportionately higher GDP (PPP) per capita for Bangladesh. You can see a few lists at this page.

Essentially, Bangladesh has about 13% the population and 60% the per capita GDP that India does.

The population ratio seems huge but not terribly so: even if all Bangladeshis migrated to India over a period of a decade, the effect on the Indian population as a whole would not be huge. On the other hand, current patterns of Bangladeshi migration, whereby they settle primarily in border states, may not be scalable to very large migration levels. I believe it is likely that, if borders were more formally opened, migrants from Bangladesh would move out farther to other parts of India, rather than primarily landing up in the nearby states of West Bengal and Assam. Also, I don’t think Bangladesh would empty out. Rather, the situation would probably be similar to that of Nepal and India: no immediate large-scale exodus, but over a longer timeframe, the “Bangladeshi diaspora” in India would grow to a size comparable with the population that is left in Bangladesh. Note that GDP (PPP) per capita in Nepal is lower than in Bangladesh, so if anything, pure economic pressure to migrate should be lower from Bangladesh. But there are some other differences, that we turn to next.

India-Bangladesh border map, source India’s second most dangerous border? by Martin W. Lewis, May 26, 2011 GeoCurrents

The GDP per capita differences with the bordering states are not so severe. According to a list of gross state domestic products for Indian states, West Bengal is close to the national average and does reasonably better than Bangladesh. Assam does only slightly better than Bangladesh, and the other North-Eastern states do about the same or worse. Ironically, part of the reason for the relative underdevelopment of these states is their relatively poor land connectivity with the rest of India, and that poor land connectivity is because of the geographical location of Bangladesh. As I mention later in the post, allowing freedom of movement through Bangladesh can facilitate greater economic integration of these states.

Why do Bangladeshis migrate to nearby states despite small income differences? I suspect there are many reasons, including long-term cultural connections, but there is also the advantage of being part of an economy that is on the whole larger, faster-growing, and more promising. Once they are in India, they can more easily move to other parts of India — even if most of them don’t avail of the opportunity. Another factor could be weather-related problems leading people to migrate temporarily or permanently out of where they live in Bangladesh.

Differences with Nepal

I’ll repeat some differences I listed in my post on open borders between India and Nepal:

  • Population: Bangladesh has a population of 150 million, about 5-6X the population of Nepal. So, having open borders with Bangladesh is (considered) less feasible, or at any rate, would be a bigger and more transformative change.
  • Greater cultural similarity propelling more migration: Bangladeshis share close cultural roots with West Bengal (indeed, Bangladesh and West Bengal were both part of the state of Bengal in British India). Thus, there is likely to be much greater migration of Bangladeshis since they may have more confidence they’ll be able to adjust to life in West Bengal. (In practice, due to reasons of geography and the strength of border security, many Bangladeshis migrate to Assam rather than West Bengal).
  • Religion: Bangladesh is an officially Muslim country with a Muslim majority. Although not as hostile to India as Pakistan, it still has some hostility. Nepal is a Hindu majority country with small amounts of Buddhism and Islam — religious demographics very similar to India.
  • Historical accident: Bangladesh and India actually started off somewhat well, because India supported Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) in its struggle for independence against West Pakistan (~1971). But political changes in Bangladesh led to a worsening of relations.

Bangladeshi migration: raw numbers

As with most historical South-South migration, the current situation can be very open in practice for migrants. Or at least it has been until recent changes. An estimate of somewhere between 3 million and 20 million illegal immigrants from Bangladesh to India is a similar magnitude to the number of illegal immigrants from Mexico to the United States (about 7 million) and even comparable to the total illegal immigrant population of the United States (about 11-13 million being the median estimate, though there is again uncertainty). The number is smaller as a proportion of the population of India, which is more than 3.5 times the US population. This might explain the lower national salience in India of Bangladeshi immigration. On the other hand, the geographical concentration of Bangladeshi immigrants in West Bengal and Assam means greater regional salience of the issue.

Cultural camouflage

Here’s what Wikipedia says:

As per 2001 census there are 3,084,826 people in India who came from Bangladesh[1] No reliable numbers on illegal immigrants are currently available. Extrapolating the census data for the state of Assam alone gives a figure of 2 million.[3][4] Figures as high as 20 million are also reported in the government and media.[5][6] Samir Guha Roy of the Indian Statistical Institute called these estimates “motivatedly exaggerated”. After examining the population growth and demographic statistics, Roy instead states that a significant numbers of internal migration is sometimes falsely thought to be immigrants. An analysis of the numbers by Roy revealed that on average around 91000 Bangladeshis nationals might have crossed over to India every year during the years 1981-1991 but how many of them were identified and pushed back is not known. It is possible that a large portion of these immigrants returned on their own to their place of origin.[7]

According to one commentator, the trip to India from Bangladesh is one of the cheapest in the world, with a trip costing around Rs.2000 (around $30 US), which includes the fee for the “Tour Operator”. As Bangladeshi are cultural similar to the Bengali people in India, they are able to pass off as Indian citizens and settle down in any part of India to establish a future.,[8] for a very small price. This false identity can be bolstered with false documentation available for as little as Rs.200 ($3 US) can even make them part of the vote bank.

The cultural camouflage that Bangladeshi migrants can engage in reflects two truths: first, the absence of an all-knowing state that has documentation and records for all existing citizens (this might be changing, though, with new identification and documentation schemes being implemented). Second, the genuine historical and cultural connection between West Bengal and Bangladesh, that were one Indian state under British Rule prior to the Partition of India in 1947 (in fact, an attempted partition back in 1905 by the British had to ultimately be reversed after significant opposition). To the extent that there are no obvious differences between Indian Bengalis and Bangladeshis, it would seem that this should point in the direction of officially recognizing the freedom of movement, since it seems to obviate concerns regarding assimilation. But political commentators, who are keen to enforce the sanctity of borders and the formal concept of citizenship, often bemoan rather than celebrate the difficulty of distinguishing Bangladeshis from genuine Indian Bengalis:

Commonality of language, culture and religion between the two countries emerged as a major challenge in identifying immigrants, making deportation extremely difficult. The immigrants speak the same language as many Indians, and often have familial connections that make it easy to assimilate with the local population. Bangladesh’s consistent denial that its citizens are illegally crossing the border also complicates matters. Even when Indian authorities have identified illegal immigrants, deporting them becomes almost impossible given the reluctance of Bangladeshi authorities to cooperate.

An underdeveloped deportation machinery

As I wrote in my South-South migration post:

In some ways, the current nature of South-South migration as well as the social and political attitudes to it closely resemble 18th and 19th century migration worldwide. People moved from very poor countries to less poor countries with more vibrant cities and growth opportunities. Natives weren’t exactly thrilled, but strong anti-migration sentiment, while often virulent by modern standards, was relatively localized and took a fair amount of time to translate to successful national movements to curb migration. I’m not aware of survey data similar to the World Values Survey for the 19th century, but my guess is we’d see a similar 25-25-25-25 split about migration despite more overtly prejudicial attitudes among the people (similar to the situation in India today).

This connects with my very first post on the Open Borders site, where I blegged readers on why immigration was freer to the 19th century USA. I had listed three potential reasons in that post: (1) wisdom/desirability, (2) technological/financial feasibility, and (3) moral permissibility. At the time, I had written that (1) was unlikely, and the likely truth was a mutually reinforcing loop of (2) and (3) (that did eventually get broken in the United States with the Chinese Exclusion Act). I think the same dynamic is at play in South-South migration, with the difference that South-South migration today has at least some nominal level of border controls, and there’s enough of a global precedent of strict border controls that the learning curve towards very strict border enforcement can be (and in many cases, is being) traversed a lot faster.

Indeed, we can see this in India’s case today. There have been occasional bursts of effort to round up and deport illegal immigrants, often by governments that are prepared to basically “deport them all” — at least in principle. But if you’re used to US deportation numbers, you might laugh at passages like this:

Yet deportation under the Foreigners Act is also problematic. In 2003, the then Home Minister L. K. Advani ordered all states to deport illegal immigrants. A few weeks later 265 people were sent to the border, but authorities in Bangladesh declined to accept them. In fact India’s Border Security Forces (BSF), and its counterpart the Bangladesh Border Guards (then called the Bangladesh Rifles), came to the point of violence over the issue.

The deportation rates do seem to be increasing over time:

At the end of 2012, for instance, 16,530 Bangladeshi citizens with valid travel documents were found to be overstaying in India—while 6,537 and 5,234 Bangladeshi nationals were deported in 2012 and 2013, respectively.

And while the move towards newer, more effective forms of identification will probably mean that previous migrants get effectively amnestied, it may well make things harder for future migrants.

Overall, the level of preparedness and competence of the interior enforcement and deportation machinery at present seems to be comparable to what the US had for Chinese immigrants around the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act. In both cases, natives are very unsympathetic, and many of them are openly virulent, to the immigrants. But the enforcement machinery is sporadic and erratic, and its throughput is minimal. Contrast this with “pro-immigrant” Barack Obama, who deported over 30,000 people a month, not so much because he personally hated immigrants, but because the deportation machinery was so well-established and functional that trying to slow it down it would be an expenditure of political capital — one that Obama didn’t consider necessary.

The terrorism problem

In the wake of the October 2014 Burdwan blast, close to the border with Bangladesh, carried out by an Islamic terrorist (or, in their view, revolutionary) group called the Indian Mujahideen, concerns about border security and terrorism were revived. The blasts revived concerns about Muslim madrassas (training institutes) as breeding grounds for terrorism Interestingly, Indian Muslim religious leaders (who do not necessarily represent the views of all or even most Indian Muslims, but are considered widely influential) sought to deflect this by stating that the problem wasn’t Indian Muslims, it was Muslims coming from across the border (i.e., Bangladesh). For instance, NDTV reports:

“No madrasa in India is anti-national. No Muslim in India is anti-national,” said Jamiat’s Sidiqullah Chowdhury. “The ones who come from outside are anti-nationals. Indian Muslims or madrasas are not terrorists.”

I believe that the threat of terrorism is in general greatly exaggerated because of its greater political salience and visibility, but it is still a threat that deserves to be taken somewhat seriously. Would an open border between India and Bangladesh lead to a dramatic increase in terrorist activity? I don’t know enough to offer a clear answer, though I’m hoping that posts later this year will explore the question more closely. But going by what we generally know about terrorism and its relation to migration policy, it seems that, to the extent that the threat of terrorism can be reasonably contained, it can be done through better targeted policy, and closing the border to economic migrants can in some ways complicate it. Consider, for instance, this discussion in the Daily Mail:

“The advantages they enjoy here are innumerable: immigrant-pockets which have proved to be excellent hideouts; a big metropolitan, Kolkata offers them concealment and its railway stations, namely Howrah and Sealdah, easy connectivity with the rest of the country,” the official added.

In other words, those with terrorist ambitions can conceal themselves among economic migrants, who are also undocumented and seek to evade detection. What would happen if the border were officially opened? Things could move in either direction: terrorists would be hiding within a larger population, so would be harder to detect. On the other hand, if peaceful migrants did not need to hide from the law, a documentation or identity scheme could be more effectively enforced, so that one could more reasonably presuppose that those who did not seek to get appropriate documentation had nefarious intentions. Also, the cooperation of the Bangladeshi government in combating terrorist activities could be enlisted more effectively if the Indian government weren’t getting in the way of peaceful migrants from Bangladesh. How do these competing considerations balance out? It’s hard to know a priori, and it’s possible that there will be an increase in terrorist activity, but I don’t think that it will be a significant increase.

This is similar to the point that my co-blogger John Lee made about the US-Mexico border, where he drew on statements by officials who actually work in law enforcement at border towns:

Simply put, if you want a secure US-Mexico border, one where law enforcement can focus on rooting out murderers and smugglers, you need open borders. You need a visa regime that lets those looking to feed their families and looking for a better life to enter legally, with a minimum of muss and fuss. When only those who cross the border unlawfully are those who have no good business being in the US, then you can have a secure border.

Co-blogger Joel Newman made some related points when discussing open borders, terrorism, and Islam:

So one argument notes that, unlike our current restrictionist policy which devotes considerable resources and focus on keeping out unauthorized immigrants seeking to work in the U.S., resources under an open borders policy could be focused on screening out terrorists. Another argument is that the free movement of people between countries could lead to the spreading of ideas contrary to those which inspire terrorism; immigrants who move between the U.S. or other western countries and their native countries would share values such as individual rights, tolerance, and democracy with their compatriots who remain in the native countries. A third argument is that if terrorism grows out of weak economies in native countries, the free movement of people from those countries and the resulting economic benefit to those countries (through remittances and immigrants returning to their native country to establish new businesses) could help prevent terrorism.

There is another reason open borders could help combat terrorism. Kevin Johnson, author of Opening the Floodgates, notes that “carefully crafted immigration enforcement is less likely to frighten immigrant communities—the very communities whose assistance is essential if the United States truly seeks to successfully fight terrorism.” (page 35) Without the fear of being the targets of immigration enforcement, immigrants would be more likely to cooperate with authorities in identifying individuals who are potential terrorists in the U.S. and assist with efforts against terrorist groups abroad.

Narendra Modi’s election rhetoric

On February 5, 2014, Prime Ministerial Candidate Narendra Modi gives a Hindi speech in Assam from citizenist premises. He argues that Indian citizens should be given preference in jobs, and Bangladeshi immigrants to West Bengal and Assam have been stealing jobs from natives

Narendra Modi assumed office as the Prime Minister of India in May 2014. While campaigning for the election, Modi emphasized repeatedly that, once elected, he would aim to solve the problem of Bangladeshi illegal immigration. It wasn’t clear at the time whether his words, like most political manifestos, were mere promises, or whether he intended to follow through on them. Modi did make these pronouncements only when campaigning in Bengal and Assam, rather than using a national platform, suggesting that it might be more of a device to connect with and win over voters in the affected regions than a key component of his actual agenda.

Modi’s views on immigrants had some interesting twists. For instance, in February 2014, Modi made remarks to the effect that India’s borders would and should remain open for Hindus worldwide, but not for Bangladeshi Muslims. The “open for Hindus worldwide” idea would be similar to Israel’s Law of Return.

“As soon as we come to power at the Centre, detention camps housing Hindu migrants from Bangladesh will be done away with,” Mr Modi told a public rally at Ramnagar in Assam.

“We have a responsibility toward Hindus who are harassed and suffer in other countries. Where will they go? India is the only place for them. Our government cannot continue to harass them. We will have to accommodate them here,” he said.

Stating that this did not mean that Assam has to bear the entire burden, he said “it will be unfair on them and they will be settled across the country with facilities to begin a new life.”

Earlier, Hindus from Pakistan had arrived in Gujarat and Rajasthan, but Atal Behari Vajpayee during his prime ministership evolved schemes to accommodate them in different states, he said.

However, Modi has threatened deportation for the majority of Bangladeshi migrants, who identify as Muslim:

Narendra Modi has said that “Bangladeshis” will be deported if he comes to power, in his sharpest comments yet on illegal immigrants. They have been given the red carpet welcome by politicians just for votes, he said at a rally on Sunday.

“You can write it down. After May 16, these Bangladeshis better be prepared with their bags packed,” Modi said in Serampore in West Bengal, which shares a porous border with Bangladesh.

Modi accuses other political parties in West Bengal and Assam of encouraging such migration and helping the migrants obtain false documents so that they can vote — a variant of the electing a new people argument, a particularly extreme form of the general political externalities argument. I don’t know enough about the extent of actual voter fraud in West Bengal and Assam (although voter fraud in the US seems to be greatly exaggerated, the situation is likely to be quite different in India). I do think, though, that to the extent the problem is real, it is created to quite an extent by the illegal status that these people have. If one political party keeps announcing its agenda to deport you (even if it rarely executes on that agenda), and another political party, openly or tacitly, allows you to stay, who will you swear allegiance to?

Interestingly, even while disagreeing with specifics, most commentators have tacitly endorsed Modi’s overall frame of needing to restrict immigration from Bangladesh. For instance, the answers to a Quora question about Modi’s speech (YouTube video earlier in the post) defend a nation’s right to arbitrary selection of immigration policy, appealing to intuitive versions of the idea we here call citizenism and collective property rights. For instance, Syed Fuad, who identifies as Bangladeshi, writes:

I’m not an Indian, so it’s not for me to decide. But in my opinion, Narendra Modi shouldn’t take it easy. He, being the Indian Prime Minister, is accountable to Indian citizens. Addressing their issues should always come before anything else, even if it means taking strong and often unpopular stands on sensitive issues.

Narendra Modi’s proposed solution

For the first few months after being elected, Modi seemed to be quiet on the subject of Bangladeshi migration. I assumed that, like most campaign trail rhetoric, this too would not actually be executed.

However, around the end of November, Narendra Modi’s proposed solution was released. Quartz has a detailed review. Here are the highlights:

Prime minister Narendra Modi has indicated that his government is open to executing a land swap with Bangladesh that will iron out long-standing border disputes and help thousands of people who live along the 4,096.7 kilometer-long common land boundary.

The deal, once ratified by the Indian parliament (PDF) will redraw India’s boundary with Bangladesh, where New Delhi will cede 17160 acres of land, in return for 7110 acres and swap enclaves. Enclaves are areas which are surrounded from all sides by foreign territories. India currently has 111 enclaves belonging to Bangladesh, while Bangladesh has 51 such areas.

Modi, in a speech in Assam on Dec. 01, also assured that the land swap—which his own party had previously vehemently opposed—would stop illegal Bangladeshi migrants from entering into India.

“The government will utilise the India-Bangla land transfer agreement to seal all routes across the international border through which illegal Bangladeshi migrants have been entering Assam and creating havoc in the state,” the prime minister said.

Quartz notes many problems with Modi’s solution in terms of the stated aim of reducing the illegal immigrant population, but does not question the goals themselves.

What would I suggest?

For good or bad, Narendra Modi, thanks to his generally hardline reputation, has more leeway to make genuine progress with migration liberalization than most other prime ministers. Given his past record of rhetoric and action, he is relatively insulated from the charge of being soft on Bangladeshis or on Muslims. This gives him a Nixon goes to China opportunity.

Modi has made some surprise moves in that direction. I don’t know about the wisdom of the land swap per se, but insofar as it contradicts his own rhetoric and at least apparently concedes land to the other country, it shows how, as somebody with a hardliner image, he is able to take actions that people with a softer image might be afraid to take as it would make them look weak.

But the land swap does not solve the fundamental need for free movement: even after all these years, the villages of Bangladesh and West Bengal are intertwined. People have extended families across the border. People seek economic opportunity across the border (my co-blogger John Lee made a related point about the borders of South-East Asia and the Nusantara a while back).

Modi can take a bold step forward by proposing a free migration zone with Bangladesh of the same sort that India has with Nepal. If Bangladeshis can come and go as they please, they have few incentives to pretend to be Indian citizens or to vote for parties using fraudulent documentation. Most people from Nepal who come to India are secure in the knowledge that they are free to go back and forth, and feel little need to become Indian citizens because it makes very little material difference to them (of course, there will be some who want Indian citizenship after living in India for a long time, or if they want to travel to third countries). Bangladeshis could get to the same point.

Modi could combine the creation of legal channels for migration with user fees that are slightly greater, but not much greater, than the cost of migrating illegally and getting false documentation. He could also come up with creative ways of encouraging greater geographical spread of Bangladeshi migrants. He’s already given the matter some thought with regards to Bangladeshi Hindu refugees. I don’t know offhand what the ideal solutions would be, or even if the problems faced by the states adjacent to Bangladesh are serious enough to warrant action, but it might still be politically expedient for Modi to show he is doing something in that regard. For instance, there could be special trains for immigrants that, at a relatively low cost, transport the immigrants to specific states, and where the immigrants formally enter the country after getting off the train at the new state. (Incidentally, concerns that immigrants who land at a particular part of the country may just stay there rather than migrating to other parts of the country were also voiced by some officers at Ellis Island).

There is also the question of whether the Bangladeshi government will agree to a free migration agreement with India. If it doesn’t, the Indian government can still do something similar unilaterally, but perhaps with fewer bells and whistles, so as to encourage the Bangladeshi government to reciprocate. Overall, I believe that the case for free migration doesn’t depend on reciprocity, but it may still be politically expedient to negotiate the deal that way, to placate voters that India is getting something from the deal. Independently, there is probably some value in making it easier for Indians to move to and from Bangladesh. There are also trade and transportation advantages: reducing border tensions with Bangladesh can allow for easier transportation of goods and people between the North-Eastern states and the rest of India. Currently, due to the way the borders are structured, the North-Eastern states are connected to the rest of India via a very narrow region of land, making economic integration harder. The free migration agreement can accompany greater ease of movement of goods and people through Bangladesh between the North-Eastern states and the rest of India.

Why does this matter?

The place premium between Bangladesh and India is probably not large (it would approximately equal the GDP per capita ratio, which is less than 2). And the absolute gains per migrant aren’t large either. Why, then, is this important?

  • The absolute population sizes in question are big enough. Allowing the 150 million Bangladeshis to move to India, seasonally or permanently, is a big deal even if the per capita gains aren’t huge. It creates a larger, more flexible, integrated labor market.
  • There may also be a peace dividend: with less border tensions, the residents of the countries have more opportunity to collaborate, and the governments can better negotiate on other issues.
  • The Indian government saves on some border and interior enforcement costs, though there may be some costs to setting up an efficient free movement system. But I suspect that those costs are less than the costs of setting up a border and enforcement process that actually works at the level that the US system does.
  • The free movement zone can create a precedent for a larger free movement zone. Other countries like Sri Lanka and Burma could be encouraged to join at a later stage. And in the longer run, perhaps Pakistan could be part of the zone as well. Open borders between India and Pakistan are unlikely to happen in the near future, because of the usual problems facing open borders between hostile nations. I think a free migration zone offers the best bet.
  • This is somewhat niche, but allowing free movement creates an insurance of sorts against adverse weather events, something that Bangladesh in particular is susceptible to because much of its land is low-lying and flood-prone. It is believed that climate change will exacerbate the problems that Bangladesh is facing. Free migration can possibly help avoid disaster striking suddenly. Similar points has been made by co-bloggers Joel and Nathan.
  • From the open borders perspective, I believe that this is a critical time in the history of India’s immigration enforcement. This is a time when Indian record-keeping is finally getting good enough that the country can start building a systematic enforcement and deportation apparatus. If we start traveling down this road, it can be quite hard (though not impossible) to reverse or change course. I believe that the years immediately before and after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act had considerable importance in terms of the development of the basic immigration enforcement apparatus, as well as the legal precendents they created. India could be going through a similar phase. Putting a brake on the process could yield larger-than-meets-the-eye dividends in terms of an undesirable road not taken.

Related reading

Some of the links in this section are also present in the body of the article.

More Thoughts on Climate Change and Open Borders

In 2012 Nathan suggested that the negative impacts of climate change likely “… will fall disproportionately on poor countries…” but that the ability of residents of those countries to migrate to more prosperous countries would allow them to escape “… possible humanitarian catastrophes.”  He concluded that “if we are altering the climate, we need to adapt to that, and migration, moving from the areas most damaged by environmental change to the areas most favored by it, is one of the most powerful instruments of adaption available.”  Open borders would provide a means for people to escape Third World countries like Bangladesh and island nations in the Pacific which are likely to be negatively affected by global warming.  In this post I will examine additional aspects of the relationship between climate change and open borders.

First, the ability to emigrate from advanced countries may be important in the future if climate change severely impacts those countries.  In a previous post I observed that open borders would be beneficial to citizens of advanced countries by allowing them to access opportunities outside of their home countries.  This availability to move to other countries would be especially important in certain climate change scenarios. In the book American Exodus, Giles Slade states that severe droughts, heat waves, forest fires, superstorms, and other adverse weather events associated with climate change will lead to many lost lives and expensive damages in the U.S.  (A recently released report also discusses the negative impact of climate change on the American economy. )  He predicts that “… as America’s Southwest dehydrates and its northeastern shorelines erode… many more human migrants will seek out cooler climes and higher ground.  Canada, of course, is the obvious destination for Americans suffering from the increasingly ‘hot, flat and crowded’ conditions of the United States in the 21st century.” (p. 221)  While the book hints that areas of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska could serve as refuges for Americans in this scenario, open borders would provide Americans another sanctuary in Canada.  Open borders also might be essential to residents of other advanced countries who might be threatened by climate change, such as those living in southern Europe and Australia.

Second, climate change can drive migration, but migration from developing countries to developed ones also might drive climate change.  Vipul has noted that some argue that “if open borders prevailed, many people would migrate to the developed world, and their resource consumption would increase dramatically… It could exacerbate problems of resource scarcity as well as global warming.”  This argument that open borders would accelerate global warning needs to be thoroughly addressed.

One response to the argument is that it is unjust to have a de facto policy of keeping would-be migrants poor by preventing them from moving to an advanced country.  The Immigration Policy Center observes that “blaming immigrants for climate change suggests that less-developed countries should stay that way… Based on this logic, unauthorized immigration isn’t the problem, increased wealth and international development are.”  In an effort to combat global warming, should there be a global campaign to keep the residents of developing nations poor and to impoverish residents of advanced countries?  If this idea is outrageous, how is it acceptable to single out a specific group, residents from poor countries wishing to migrate to advanced ones, for such treatment?

Another possible response to the argument is that, as Nathan points out in his post, since some regions could benefit from global warming  and so long as the world has open borders, people can adapt to the accelerated warming caused by migration through further migration, like the idea of Americans emigrating to Canada.  Klaus  Desmet and Esteban Rossi-Hansberg, who have researched the economic impact of global warming, write that even in extreme scenarios of climate change, “… the overall welfare effect of climate change is negligible.  Although agricultural productivity declines in some places, it increases in others.  As long as the world can trade and people can move, the impact is minimal.”  However, they note that in “very extreme” scenarios, “things could turn disastrous… welfare would decline precipitously.”

So could we have open borders without the risk that the world could warm up too much?  Apparently, yes. Jared Diamond, professor of geography at UCLA, highlights the current different environmental impacts between those in advanced and developing countries and the implications of higher levels of consumption by individuals residing in poorer countries.  He states that “the average rates at which people consume resources like oil and metals, and produce wastes like plastics and greenhouse gases, are about 32 times higher in North America, Western Europe, Japan and Australia than they are in the developing world.  That factor of 32 has big consequences.”  He also notes that “what really matters is total world consumption, the sum of all local consumptions, which is the product of local population times the local per capita consumption rate.”  Not surprisingly, “people who consume little want to enjoy the high consumption lifestyle.  Governments of developing countries make an increase in living standards a primary goal of national policy.  And tens of millions of people in the developing world seek the first-world lifestyle on their own, by emigrating, especially to the United States and Western Europe, Japan and Australia.  Each such transfer of a person to a high-consumption country raises world consumption rates, even though most immigrants don’t succeed immediately in multiplying their consumption by 32… if the whole developing world were suddenly to catch up, world rates would increase elevenfold.  It would be as if the world population ballooned to 72 billion people.”

However, Mr. Diamond apparently does not promote restricting migration as a solution.  Instead he sees the solution residing in the more intelligent use of resources.  He states that “we could have a stable outcome in which all countries converge on consumption rates considerably below the current highest levels… whether we get there willingly or not, we shall soon have lower consumption rates, because our present rates are unsustainable.  Real sacrifice wouldn’t be required, however, because living standards are not tightly coupled to consumption rates.  Much American consumption is wasteful and contributes little or nothing to quality of life.  For example, per capita oil consumption in Western Europe is about half of ours, yet Western Europe’s standard of living is higher by any reasonable criterion…”  He notes fisheries and forests could be managed sustainably, though most are not. He predicts that “within most of our lifetimes we’ll be consuming less than we do now” and “per capita consumption rates in many developing countries will one day be more nearly equal to ours.  These are desirable trends, not horrible prospects.  In fact, we already know how to encourage the trends… I am cautiously optimistic.  The world has serious consumption problems, but we can solve them if we choose to do so.”

Similarly, an article on the website for the Center for American Progress  notes that “for years, anti-immigrant groups have waved the green flag to push a xenophobic agenda… And while there is a relationship between population growth and environmental destruction, it is a complex one.  Environmental impact is determined not just by our numbers, but by how we use our resources—our systems of production and consumption and the policies that shape them… it’s crucial to reduce consumption in the affluent countries, by, for example, investing in mass transit and ‘green’ urban planning that can reduce the environmental impact (and greenhouse gas emissions) of large, growing cities.”

Increased immigration could actually reduce consumption rates in host countries.  Vipul posits that the increased population density that open borders would create in advanced countries with relatively low density, such as the U.S. and Canada, could reduce the per capita carbon footprint in those countries.  For example, the enlargement of municipalities through immigration could make mass transit feasible where it wasn’t before.  This difference in population density may explain why the U.S. economy is more  carbon-intensive than that of Western Europe.  Increased density could mitigate the increased carbon footprint from larger migration flows.

In conclusion, open borders could be important for people in both advanced and developing countries to escape the negative consequences of climate change.  At the same time, fears of accelerated climate change due to increased migration shouldn’t undermine open borders; rather than fighting an unjust campaign to keep those in the developing world poor, advanced countries must focus on how resources are used.

Open borders and climate change

Could climate change be good? Wikipedia’s article on “Regional effects of climate change” lists a wide variety of effects of climate change, all of which seem to be bad. That seems odd. Unless the world’s present climate system somehow represents the perfect ideal, presumably climate change should be good for some reasons. Why should we think the present climate system to be ideal? Is it because this is the climate humans evolved in, and humans are perfectly adapted to it? But that can’t be the case, because humans spread to most of the world rather quickly, and too recently for evolution to have altered us much. For the theistically inclined, one might say that God, in His wisdom, made the world ideal for man. But in the Bible, God tells Adam and Eve: “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.” In other words, we have divine endorsement to alter the environment. We certainly have altered the environment greatly since we came on the scene. We’ve been doing that for thousands of years. We’ve already adapted to many environments, from tropical rainforests to arctic tundras. Why should it be a problem to adapt to a world a few degrees warmer? Studies show that global warming will benefit some regions. Some plants in arid regions might benefit. One supposes that places like Canada, Russia, even New England, which are uncomfortably cold, could flourish in a warmer world.

Aside from the ethics of whether we have a “right” to alter the natural environment (I won’t explore that), much of the problem with climate change is that even if it doesn’t reduce the capacity of Earth as a whole to sustain a growing population, it probably will make some regions less amenable to human flourishing. The most vulnerable country in the world to global warming may be Bangladesh, a country with a dense and rapidly growing population which could see 11 percent of its land inundated if seas rose by 1 meter. It seems likely that the burden of adapting to climate change will fall disproportionately on poor countries that played a rather small role in causing it. Suppose that, as seems likely, other countries are benefiting, in the sense that their environments are becoming more conducive to agriculture, more capable of sustaining large populations. If Bangladeshis were allowed to emigrate to these countries, that probably wouldn’t reconcile them to the loss of their homes, but it would do much to prevent possible humanitarian catastrophes.

It stands to reason that open borders should be part of the environmentalist agenda. If we are altering the climate, we need to adapt to that, and migration, moving from the areas most damaged by environmental change to the areas most favored by it, is one of the most powerful instruments of adaptation available. If we want to avoid altering the climate, there will be some regions where human beings can live with the least damaging environmental footprint. We should make it possible for them to do so (and then maybe arrange a Pigovian tax regime to encourage them to).

UPDATE: A column titled Moving to Greenland in the face of global warming by Klaus Desmet and Esteban Rossi-Hansberg for VOX makes some related points.